Having browsed through this book, I think I can say that the Komodo Lizard is the most disgusting creature on earth, but it’s a tight race. The Komodo’s bite is usually fatal, as it keeps it mouth full of deadly bio-toxins by chewing on faeces and eating rotting carcasses, as well as through its own bleeding gums. That’s quite apart from the venomous glands in its lower jaw.
Its family life isn’t much better. The newly hatched young instinctively fear their parents who view them as nothing other than food, so they head for the trees and stay up out of mummy and daddy’s reach (they’re too fat to climb) until they’re four years old and are better able to fight back.
After telling us this Michael Largo asks, with commendable open-mindedness “do they make good pets?” Although admitting that some have been trained to jump through hoops for food, he points out that they cannot be trusted not to kill and eat their owners. So that’s a ‘no’ then.
Not all the creatures in this fascinating compilation are quite so hellish, in fact not all of them are quite so real. It’s a nice mixture of mythical, semi-mythical, possibly, and definitely real. From the descriptions it’s sometimes difficult to tell which category applies.
The Hallucigenia is one such unlikely individual. A worm-like animal with “seven pairs of pincer legs, six sets of tentacles across its back, and a blob of a head without eyes, ears or mouth”. Its eating habits are suitably bizarre: “It is not know if the creature had small, chewing mouths at the end of each leg, or if the food it captured was handed off from one pincer to the next like a baton … and then inserted into an eating hole somewhere near its blobbish head”.
Just as well, I think, that the Hallucigenia was only about an inch long and died out in the Cambrian period.
Lots of our favourite crypto-creatures are here as well, the Jersey Devil, the Kraken, the horse-headed men of the Philippines, and the Mongolian Death Worm. Largo outlines the legend of the Death Worm and points out that although expeditions to find the creature have come back empty-handed (and more importantly with their hands still attached), locals are convinced of its reality.
However there is a creature called the ‘Bobbit Worm’ (I am not making this up, although I cannot be sure that no-one else is) that has a similar MO to the MDW: it lives in the ocean depths buried under the sand ready to leap out and slice any passing prey in two. These unlovely creatures grow up to ten feet long and live for over 100 years.
Our old chum the Griffin features here also, although Largo fails to ask, as he does for some other mythical beasts ‘is it real?’ Magonians, of course, know the answer to that!
But you don’t have to worry too much about the mythical creatures, as the real ones are as weird and anything dreamt up by the like of Pliny the Elder or fantasy writers from West London. Here we have the inch-long millipede with 750 legs; the Demon Duck of Doom (you’ll just have to read the book); the Balkan Bonnacon which defends itself from predators by aiming massive farts at its pursuers, and the Velvet Worm from the hotter and sticker parts of the southern hemisphere; the male impregnates the female by carrying its sperm on its antennae and inserting its whole head into the female. Don’t try this at home!
Lots of fun for all the family here and an essential book for anyone compiling pub quizzes or who enjoys Stephen Fry’s QI quiz show. Probably best with a PG rating though! -- John Rimmer