Sunday, August 29, 2010

Creature Feature: Crested Serpent Eagle.

China has a plethora of unique mythological creatures. Unlike Western monsters, which are made almost solely to be destroyed, the Chinese have taken detailed notes on their fantastic fauna. They write about everything from habitat to sexual dimorphism to how toxic the creatures are to eat. They may as well be real animals over there.

Oh, wait. At least one of them is.

There is a bird called a zhen in Chinese mythology. It is a dark shade of green, purple, or black, and eats almost nothing but poisonous reptiles. The females are as different from the males as night from day. The birds are as big as geese or eagles, but resemble owls.

In all accounts, the zhen bird is highly poisonous thanks to its diet. Its feathers are said to produce one of the most powerful toxins known in China. Some sources elaborate further, saying that this bird is so poisonous that its droppings corrode all the rocks it craps on. Merely drinking from the same watering holes as it does is potentially lethal. Only the rhinoceros is safe from the zhen's toxicity.

If one of the zhen's feathers is mixed with rice wine, the mixture becomes a deadly poison that can only be detected and cured by placing something made out of rhinoceros horn in it. Cups were made out of rhino horn so that drinkers would be less affected by poisons. Compare the detoxifying effects of the unicorn's horn, alicorn, to this idea; Europe probably stole the notion from Chinese tales about the rhinoceros horn's powers.

Ooohhhh, yeah. Work the feathers, baby, work the feathers...

Yes, the zhen is a real bird. The detailed accounts of Chinese writers have pointed scientists and mythology buffs alike to the Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela), a bird that, you guessed it, eats snakes all the time. It also has a crest that makes it look like an owl when fluffed. The bird is not only found in China, but also covers much of Asia.


Now that we have identified the real-life basis of the bird, here's step 2: Given that some caterpillars eat toxic plants to give themselves a nasty taste, would eating vipers be enough to make the zhen one of the rare poisonous birds?

Nobody knows. Seriously. Although there are a few preserved Crested Serpent Eagle specimens in various museums, the chemicals used to preserve them would make any and all venom tests invalid. Why somebody has not captured one (supposedly they are fairly tame as-is), taken feather samples, put them in rice wine, and given it to some mice is beyond me. This could be a dealbreaker for saving rhinoceroses; one of the main things threatening them is the demand for their horns as Chinese medicine.

C'mon, China. You're gonna rule the world, soon. Get on this potentially lethal weapon.

(More on the zhen and the Chinese rhinoceros horn trade here.)

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