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The Notzuchitokage: Mystery Lizards of Japan

Contrary to the popular image of Japan as a country of crowded, bustling metropolises, this is a land which is in fact made up of vast areas of pristine, remote wilderness, mountains, and many unique animals. It is also a country that carries with it its fair share of mystery animals which have proven to be just as enigmatic as any other cryptids of the world. Far out past the neon lights and throngs of people in places like Tokyo lie rugged areas that hold secrets that we have yet to understand. One such animal is a type of undocumented large lizard that has over history been somewhat linked to Japan’s own mystery snake as well, and which makes an intriguing mystery even weirder.

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 of Japan is called the Tsuchinoko, a type of unknown snake recognized by its distinct fat body topped with tapered off ends, and its rather strange methods of locomotion, such as making giant leaps, sidewinding, rolling end over end, or even rolling like a wheel. 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. However, 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 type of mystery animal? Are there perhaps two distinct cryptid reptiles lurking in the wilds of Japan?

Alleged Tsuchinoko mummy

Alleged Tsuchinoko mummy

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 (2.3 feet) in length, with typically light to dark reddish coloration. The upper body resembles a lizard’s, with two prominent legs, while the lower body is long, lacks hind-limbs, and looks like that of a snake. The head is often described as being imposing and 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, and made a faint hissing sound as it scurried along.

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, complete with visible sharp teeth. Around the same time, also in Aichi prefecture, three of the strange animals were seen sunning themselves upon a rock, and were said to look like snakes with crocodilian heads and two clear front legs which were splayed out over the warm rock surface. It is claimed that when they became aware of the intruder they scurried off in unison into the underbrush.

Supposed mummy of a two-legged Tsuchinoko

Supposed mummy of a two-legged Tsuchinoko

In 1975, several villagers in the mountainous region of the Kii peninsula reported seeing a particularly large and intimidating specimen of Notzuchitokage lurking in the wilderness. The creature in these cases was described as being around 5 feet in length and looking very much like a land-roving alligator, only with just two legs, which it allegedly used to drag itself along, and of a dark reddish coloration. One village man who was startled by the appearance of the creature about 20 feet in front of him as it lurched out onto a trail claimed that it was so large and fierce looking that he feared for his life and ran as fast as he could the opposite way. In addition to several sightings of the creature, booming, croaking noises reportedly could be heard at night coming from the surrounding wilderness.

More ancient stories and folklore made no distinction between the legged and the more famous legless variety of Tsuchinoko, they were both 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 as two different phenomena, there are several significant differences in behavior and appearance that seem to suggest that if they exist, the Tsuchinoko and Notzuchitokage are quite different animals.

Tsuchinoko with no legs

Tsuchinoko with no legs

The most glaring difference is the presence of two clear, unmistakeable front legs in Notzuchitokage, while the more well known Tsuchinoko is quite clearly always described as decidedly snake-like, with no legs. 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 describe the dark or black color mentioned in some Notzuchitokage reports. Blue tongued skinks have heads that could be seen as somewhat reminiscent of a crocodile, also an attribute mentioned in many eyewitness reports.

blue tongued skink

blue tongued skink

Interestingly, the blue tongued skink is also often used to explain the Tsuchinoko as well, 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 two-legged 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 and burrowing. 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 or a new species of Bipedidae might be found in Japan.

Bipedidae

Bipedidae

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. Is it possible that any species such as this could have survived into the modern day, at least long enough to account for Notzuchitokage sightings? 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.