By Brent Swancer
Japan seems to be a country with its fair share of zoological mysteries and perhaps the most well known example is a reptile that perhaps holds a deeper mystery than it may at first seem.
One of the most famous cryptids in Japan is the Tsuchinoko, a type of unknown snake recognized by its distinct fat body and strange methods of locomotion, such as making giant leaps or rolling end over end. It is also notable for its purported unusual vocalizations, which include chirps, grunts, howls, growls, and mimicry of various animal sounds or even human voices. This is the popular modern image of the Tsuchinoko, the one cryptozoologists are most likely to be familiar with, and the description given most commonly by eyewitnesses who have reportedly seen it.
The cases illustrated above are generally labeled as examples of Tsuchinoko. Nevertheless, you can observe that some merge into a different description, as seen here for the second example.
Some older stories often make references to Tsuchinoko having two front legs. Since this conflicts prominently with what is typically reported, is there a chance that these accounts of two legged Tsuchinoko perhaps refer to an altogether different animal?
In the rural mountainous areas of Japan, there have been occasional tales of a mysterious reptile known as the Notzuchitokage. The Notzuchitokage is said to be around 70cm in length, with light to dark reddish coloration. The upper body resembles a lizard’s, with two legs, while the lower body is long, lacks hind-limbs, and resembles a snake. The head is often described as looking like that of a crocodile or alligator, and the creature’s tongue is sometimes said to be dark or black in color.
Although rare, fairly recent reports of these creatures have been made on occasion and they are different enough from Tsuchinoko reports to warrant attention. For instance, in 1974, a Yuyama Minamishigara saw one on a narrow dirt road in Kanagawa prefecture. The animal was described as being around 1 meter long, and 25 to 30 cm around. It was dark red in color, with a black tongue lolling out of its mouth. The animal had two clearly visible front legs.
Another sighting was made in September of the same year, 1974, by a Mrs. Yamazaki of Aichi prefecture on an abandoned road on the Tokai Nature Trail. In this report, the two-legged creature was said to be a bright red color, with stripes and a black triangle on its head. It was described as having a mouth like a crocodile.
Old stories and folklore made no distinction between the legged and the more famous legless variety of Tsuchinoko, they were known as Tsuchinoko whether they had legs or not. However, there are several reasons to suppose that we are quite possibly dealing with two markedly different creatures that were for whatever reason lumped together in more ancient times. Besides being clearly differentiated in more modern accounts, there are differences in behavior and appearance that seem to suggest that if they exist, the Tsuchinoko and Notzuchitokage are quite different animals.
The most glaring difference is the presence of two clear front legs in Notzuchitokage, while the more well known Tsuchinoko is quite clearly described as snake-like. The Tsuchinoko is described as more like a viper than a lizard, and is not ever mentioned as having legs in modern day sightings. In addition, the two-legged Notzuchitokage is not known for moving in any particularly dynamic fashion. Whereas the Tsuchinoko is reported to do things such as roll in a hoop, leap several meters, or even tumble end over end, the Notzuchitokage is mostly said to just scurry or crawl along. It is also not particularly linked to water, unlike the water loving, more snake-like Tsuchinoko.
When trying to assess whether we are dealing with one or two types of unknown animal, it is helpful to try and assess just what it is that people could possibly be seeing in the first place.
One of the main proposed culprits for Notzuchitokage sightings is that people are misidentifying blue tongued skinks, of the genus Tiliqua. While these types of skink are not native to Japan, they have been popular as pets there, and could quite possibly have been somehow introduced into the wild. These skinks have relatively short legs on a long, thick body, so perhaps people are simply not seeing the hind-legs when they make a sighting, and are thus left with the impression that they have seen some sort of two legged lizard.
These skinks are also characterized by their blue tongues (hence their common name), which could be described the dark or black color mentioned in some Notzuchitokage reports. Blue tongued skinks have heads that could be seen as somewhat reminiscent of a crocodilian, also an attribute mentioned in some reports.
Interestingly, the blue tongued skink is also often used to explain the Tsuchinoko, the difference being that due to the small limbs of these skinks, witnesses in those cases are not noticing any legs at all. If this is true, then it could be seen as a basis on which there might be a common connection between the Tsuchinoko and Notzuchitokage. Perhaps the two cryptids really are one and the same, and are both just misidentifications of blue tongued skinks made under differing circumstances. Over the years these conflicting reports of the same creature could then have been erroneously separated into two separate kinds of cryptid. It seems possible to an extent, but what of the medieval accounts made long before the pet trade would have introduced blue tongued skinks to Japan’s shores?
Speculation abounds on what what the Tsuchinoko could be. From misidentified blue tongued skinks to overfed snakes, to a new type of viper, the search for answers has focused mostly on what would look snake-like. But is there any possibility of the presence of distinct, two legged reptiles in Japan that could explain Notzuchitokage reports, as well as the old tales of two legged Tsuchinoko?
In fact, there are known animals of this kind that do exist. One possibility is that we are dealing with some type of undiscovered species of the family Bipedidae, commonly known as the two legged worm lizards. The general appearance of these creatures certainly seems to fit the bill.
Two legged worm lizards are quite unusual looking, with a long, serpentine body lacking hind limbs, and just two forelimbs used for digging. They are also pinkish in color, which could account for descriptions of a reddish hue in Notzuchitokage reports. Bipedidae are found only in Mexico, and are rarely seen by humans due to their burrowing nature, however it is intriguing to think that a similarly adapted creature might be found in Japan whether they are directly related or not.
Another more bizarre possibility is that Notzuchitokage could be a sort of surviving transitory species between snakes and lizards. Although extremely rare, fossils of this type have been found before. In Lebanon, a fossil was found of a creature known as Eupodophis descovensi, from the Late Cretaceous around 92 million years ago. The fossil is a rare glimpse of what is believed to be a transitory stage between lizards and snakes, with two hind legs clearly intact. Although the legs on the fossil are located far down the body rather than in the front, it illustrates the possibilities.
Even modern snakes such as boas and pythons possess tiny spurs on their lower bodies, the remnants of legs, that are now used primarily as “grippers” during mating. Is the Notzuchitokage perhaps some sort of surviving transitory animal that is an amalgram of certain lizard and snake features? It seems unlikely, but interesting to speculate on nevertheless.
It seems worth keeping in mind that it is possible that looking at explanations for two legged lizards may not be necessary. A snake could perhaps be mistaken as having two legs under certain conditions just as a skink could be mistaken for having none, but the questions remain. Are the Tsuchinoko and Notzuchitokage one and the same animal, or are they different? Could the same culprit be behind stories for both of them? Are we dealing with one cryptid or two? Are they misidentified known animals or something new?
Whatever the Nodzuchitokage and Tsuchinoko are, it seems worth considering the possibility that there could be more than one undocumented type of reptile lurking in the remote forests of Japan.
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.