Tuesday, 25 January 2022

Lariosauro: A rather curious cryptid

Fig. 1: Models of various southern alpine marine reptiles from the Fossil Museum of Meride in Kanton Ticino. Seen here are (top to bottom) Lariosaurus, Tanystropheus, Cymbospondylus and Cyamodus (image taken by me).

Writing about cryptozoology might seem like a weird turn of events for this blog, but I promise that, like with the discussion on SimEarth, there is a link to the history of paleontology in this story. Anyway, since the fateful first official report of the Loch Ness Monster in 1933, almost every body of water in the world has laid claim to its own lake monster. Today we will look at one such example, a cryptid named Lariosauro, hailing from the Como Lake of Northern Italy. As you may have guessed, I am skeptical as to the existence of (most) cryptids, including this one, but there is something of note to discuss here, as Lariosauro is an interesting diversion from regular lake monster lore and in turn arose in an interesting cultural context.

Fig. 2: Two books on the Lariosauro I was able to find, but they unfortunately are just novels.

Before we begin, we need to address the problem of sourcing. The first and most obvious place one might look for information, Wikipedia, is unfortunately not of much help, as its article on the monster cites literally no sources for its claims. The same is the case with cryptozoological fan-wikias. During my research I did find out, however, that there have been at least two books written about Lariosauro (Il monstro del lago di Como, il lariosauro, by an Emanuele Pagani and Il Lariosauro by a Giovanni Galli), but from what I gathered they are novels telling fictional stories based on the eyewitness accounts and not serious analyses akin to the many books written about Nessie. In any case, they are written in Italian, a language I do not speak (I once had the opportunity to learn Italian in school, but my parents told me to continue with French instead, which has been nothing but a detriment to my life and I deeply regret listening to them in that regard. I curse the French language and the Académie Française can also go **** itself for advancing the extinction of local dialects, like the alpine Arpitan language). Since I did have Latin in school though, with some effort I can at least understand a bit of Italian text in context, so I might look into these books should I ever do a follow-up on Lariosauro. All of this was a long-winded way for me to say that most of the information I could gather on the monster here stems from roughly translated Italian newspapers and websites (which are linked at the end of the article), who usually also do not cite their sources, so maybe take some (or probably all) of the accounts with a grain of salt. Of course also comment below if you happen to be from Como and can correct me on some details.

Fig. 3: A typical view of the Lago di Como (image taken by me).

Lago di Como, also called Lario, is the third-largest lake of Italy, having an area of 146 square kilometers, and is also one of the deepest lakes in Europe. It also has a rather odd shape, looking like a three-armed starfish when viewed from above (wait a second…). It lies in the North of Lombardy, close to the border of the Swiss Kanton of Ticino. Its climate is classified as humid subtropical, with high temperatures and rainfall in summer and mild winters, and its vegetation is best described as Mediterranean. It is a very beautiful place and has been used as a backdrop for some notable movies, including Episode II of Star Wars (including the infamous "I don't like sand"-scene, unfortunately). Like pretty much every lake in proximity to the Alps, it was created by extensive glacial activity during the last ice ages, which carved out deep valleys to be later filled in by the melting water masses. The area around the lake has been settled by humans since the stone age. During the iron age it was first settled by the Celtic tribe of the Orobii, before the Romans took over the region. The city of Como, at the southern tip of the lake, was in fact founded by none other than Julius Caesar himself. Keep this origin and long history of the lake in mind, we will come back to it.

Fig. 4: Some of the rather prehistoric-looking vegetation around the lake (image taken by me).

The first time a monster was sighted in the lake was in 1946, when the local newspaper Corriere Comasco reported that two unnamed hunters saw a large and unidentifiable animal in the waters of Pian di Spagna, which, fittingly, is a nature reserve at the northern tip of the lake. It was described as a reptilian creature, around 10 to 12 meters long (!), with red scales and a large jaw. It quickly dived back into the water as soon as the two pointed their rifles at it (in some versions I read they also shot at it). The next sighting was in 1954 in Argegno, on the western shore of the lake. This time a father and his son (again unnamed) described a much smaller animal, around 80-90 cm long, with a rounded head and webbed feet similar to those of a duck. In August of 1957, a large creature was spotted again, this time between Dongo and Musso, also on the wester shore. In September of the same year, said creature was spotted again when a biologist named Renzo Pagani dove into the lake with a bathysphere and spotted the animal from underwater, describing it as about two meters long with a head similar to that of a crocodile. The next sighting would not happen again until 2003, when fishermen from Lecco, on the eastern shore of the lake, spotted an animal they described as eel-like and 10 to 12 meters long. And that is basically it, I could not find any more stories regarding the creature and there also seem to be no photos or even drawings by the witnesses.

Fig. 5: Complete specimen of Lariosaurus/Ceresiosaurus calagnii at the Zoological Museum of Zürich (image taken by me).

Unmentioned so far is the fact that apparently since the very first sighting, the alleged lake monster has been given the name Lariosauro, which is peculiar, as this is the name of an already existing genus. In 1830 a fossil member of the nothosauridae was discovered in the community of Perledo, on the eastern shore of Lago di Como. In 1847, Italian paleontologist Giulio Curioni first described the animal, giving it the name Lariosaurus balsami. The fact the cryptid is directly named after this fossil and is indicated by almost everyone writing about Lariosauro to be a surviving member or at least descendant of this genus, is rather peculiar. While it is of course a mainstay of cryptozoology to claim certain cryptids are prehistoric survivors, I think it is rare that such a direct connection is made. Nessie is for example often imagined as a surviving plesiosaurian, but seldom connected to one genus of the group in particular. From a non-cynical point of view, the direct association between the Como Lake monster and the fossil of Lariosaurus is all the more puzzling, as the two do not really look alike. The original L. balsami was a nothosaur that measured just 60 cm in length, making it downright cute. If Lariosauro was more like this, it would be a way more believable cryptid, as it would definitely be better at hiding. Apart from its small size, the perhaps most notable feature of real life Lariosaurus was that, if the anatomy of the limbs is interpreted correctly, the hands were already formed into flippers, while the feet still had distinctive (though probably webbed) toes, giving it a rather transitional appearance. Out of all the sightings, only the one from 1954 comes close in describing a similar animal. Especially the large size of the other claimed sightings makes such an association rather difficult. If you want to be generous, it has repeatedly been proposed that the nearby Swiss nothosaurid species Ceresiosaurus calagnii (first described in the 1930s) and C. lanzi are actually nestled within the Lariosaurus genus and would have to be renamed accordingly (Rieppel 2019). This would put the size range of the genus up to around 2.3 meters. But this is still about 8 meters short of the lake monster, which, as described, would be closer to something like Kronosaurus in size. If we are extra generous, have some fun and assume that the eel-like 2003 sighting had no relation to the actual monster, then maybe the ’46 and the ’57 sightings described a giant nothosaur-descendant, with the ‘54 one perhaps being a juvenile. Fun aside and regardless of any such speculation, there is of course the rather obvious problem that Lariosaurus lived during the Middle Triassic, over 240 million years ago, and was by all records a rather short-lived genus. Even if its descendants (or for that matter the descendants of any of the local Mesozoic marine reptiles) had survived all the way until modern day, it would have been pretty much impossible for them to survive in the exact same region all this time. During the time of Lariosaurus, Northern Italy and Southern Switzerland were a shallow marine environment on the Gondwanan coast of the Tethys Sea. The subsequent break-up of Pangea and the Cenozoic formation of the Alps have obviously made the whole region unrecognizable; where there were once beaches and reefs, there are now mountains and valleys. Most glaringly, as mentioned above, almost the whole region that the lake formed in, was covered by the massive alpine ice shield of the Würm-Kaltzeit until just 11’700 years ago. It is possible that smaller lariosaurs may have been able to crawl on land, theoretically allowing survivors to escape the advancing glaciers, but a sauropterygian as large as the monster described in most of the accounts almost certainly would not be capable of that. The only way for there to be a direct evolutionary connection between Lariosaurus and Lariosauro would be if the animals had somehow survived the change of their marine home into a mountain region, then escaped South or East (perhaps by becoming marine again) during the ice ages, then found their way back into the region, where there was now a big lake,  and then grew around 10 meters in size in the span of just a few thousand years. Frankly, that is a bit ridiculous to believe.

Fig. 6: While usually closely associated with water, I happened to find this grass snake (either N. natrix or N. helvetica) right outside my house, though I do live close to a river. We have many frogs here, so that is what it was probably after.

If the monster of Lake Como is not a descendant of Lariosaurus, could it still be an unidentified reptile or fish of a different kind? Admittedly, the size, depth and especially the climate of the lake make it a lot more attractive as the home of a large, aquatic reptile than the likes of Loch Ness or Lake Champlain. Apart from lizards, the Swiss and Northern Italian alpine valleys are also notably home to many snake species, including three which prefer to live close to or in water, such as the grass snake (Natrix natrix), the dice snake (Natrix tessellata) and the viperine water snake (Natrix maura). Assuming then that the ‘54 account is the odd-one-out, could Lariosauro be a giant version of one of these? It is certainly not impossible for snakes to reach lengths of around 10 meters, as there are reports of anacondas and reticulated pythons coming close (though these reports are often not firmly verified) and there certainly were fossil members in that size-range, such as Palaeophis colossaeus and the famous Titanoboa cerrejonensis. Of course, the giant-snake-explanation faces the problem that an alpine version of Titanoboa would be ridiculously obvious, not only because of its size but also because it is an air-breather, so there would be a lot more sightings than just the meagre four (the same obviously also goes for any explanation that invokes prehistoric marine reptiles). The idea of a new species of giant, reptile-looking fish, similar to a sturgeon or pike, is only marginally better, as, again due to the glacial period, such a fish would have had to have swum up into the lake rather recently on a rather arduous way. Unlike Loch Ness, Lake Como does not have an easy connection to the sea. Its only outlet is the river Adda, which after about 140 km flows into the river Po, which after about 300 km reaches the Adriatic Sea close to Venice.

The probably best and most decisive argument against any unidentified animal, large or small, living in Lago di Como is the fact that the sightings of any such creature occurred only so recently in recorded history. Again: this region was settled and urbanized all the way into antiquity. This was not some Pictish wilderness (though note that it is a myth that Loch Ness was a remote region before 1933 (Naish 2017, p. 83 – 84)), this was a place surrounded in all cardinal directions by some of the most notable centres of ancient and medieval civilization, where a Roman emperor could have conceivably gone on a pleasure-barge-holiday or a Renaissance artist could have painted the landscape. If there really were any such monster in the lake, you would expect it to be mentioned in ancient texts, be featured in some medieval bestiaries or, even better, for there to actually be physical remains preserved in some monastery or Wunderkammer. And yet, there is not even anything resembling folklore about a monster in Lake Como before 1946. Compare this for example to another alpine, reptilian cryptid, the Tatzelwurm, which supposedly lives in way more secluded regions deep in the mountains and yet has accounts going back at least into the 17th century. Even Nessie has the Columba-account from 565 A.D. and some Celtic kelpie-stories attached to it (though it is of course debatable whether there is a direct connection). What then did suddenly cause people to sporadically see a lake monster from the 1940s onward?

From a historical context, the year of the first sighting, 1946 is already peculiar, as this was just one year after the Second World War. While Italy’s fascist regime already broke down in ‘43 with the southern invasion by the Allies, the country did not leave the war without major damage. Immediately after the invasion, Mussolini, after being freed from prison by Nazi paratroopers, fled North to Salo at Lake Guarda, where his administration reformed the North of the country as the Italian Social Republic, which was nothing more than a Nazi puppet-state. From that point on, Italy basically destroyed itself in a sort of civil war between the Allied-South and the Axis-North, until April 1945, when an Italian resistance movement finally ousted the Nazi occupiers and executed Mussolini. In fact, Mussolini and his mistress, while trying to flee to Switzerland, were caught and shot right next to Lake Como, near the village of Dongo. In this context, the first account of Lariosauro reads rather differently: A big-mouthed monster at Lake Como, clad in scales of red (a colour often associated with the Roman Empire, which Mussolini sought to recreate), fleeing after local people point guns at it.

Apart from possibly mocking Mussolini, there is perhaps a more economic reason for a newspaper to make up a story about a lake monster (And yes, I say make up, because I have strong doubts at some of these stories being actual reports, because, apart from the bathysphere one, I could not find any source associating them with any actual people or names. It is definitely not unheard of from local newspapers to make up inoffensive stories whole cloth in order to generate interest in said paper). The straining fascist dictatorship, the war-effort and the ensuing civil war had ruined Italy to such a degree that the country left the war only marginally less wrecked than its ally Germany. At this economic low point of the century, it would have been very advantageous to generate interest in the lake by creating the story of a monster in it. After all, it had worked before. One of the very first prominent sightings of Nessie was made in 1933 by Aldie Mackay, who owned a hotel by the Loch Ness (Naish 2017, p. 85), and the interest the monster and subsequent reports of it generated in the region undeniably made it one of the prime tourist attractions in Scotland. Since then, many lake communities have greatly capitalized on their own stories of lake monsters, likely hoping to see similar results. If viewed as a touristic hoax, the association of the monster with the fossil Lariosaurus makes a bit more sense from a “marketing” perspective. Associating the lake monster with an actual fossil animal from the same region lends the existence of the cryptid more credibility, especially to laypeople who are not aware of the dramatic geologic history of the region and the biology of the actual animal. Something similar happened in fact, again, at the Loch Ness, when in 2003 a man named Gerald McSorely claimed to have found fossil vertebrae of a plesiosaur in the rocks close to the lake. It later turned out that the fossils were planted at the location, probably by McSorely himself, in order to make the plesiosaur-explanation for Nessie seem more likely (note that the loch was also covered by a massive glacier during the last ice age). I therefore opine that the very first sighting could have very well been a newspaper yarn. 

Fig. 7: Bernhard Peyer (left) and Ferdinand Broili (right) at the Val Serrata fossil site of the Monte San Giorgio.

There is also another thing of historical note which may have influenced the first report, as well as the ones from the 50s. Beginning in the 1920s and lasting all the way to 1968, the University of Zürich undertook various digging expeditions to the Triassic Grenzbitumenzone of the Monte San Giorgio, which is just one hill-range away from Lake Como. They were first led by Bernhard Peyer and then Emil Kuhn-Schnyder. During these excavations, various new species of marine reptiles were discovered and named by Peyer and Kuhn-Schnyder, such as the aforementioned Ceresiosaurus, new species of smaller lariosaurs, Paraplacodus, Cyamodus hildegardis, various pachypleurosaurs, Cymbospondylus buchseri and Helveticosaurus, as well as complete skeletons of known taxa like Nothosaurus giganteus (the specimen was once considered its own species and genus, Paranothosaurus amsleri) and Tanystropheus hydroides. These rather extensive and spectacular discoveries must have undoubtedly created at least some local interest in the fossil marine reptiles of the Alps and could very well have been what sparked the “rediscovery” of earlier finds like Lariosaurus and the sightings from 1946 to 1957 could well have been attempts to capitalize on this fossil boom in the region. This would also neatly explain why there had not been any sightings between the 50s and 2000s, as large-scale excavations at the mountain had stopped.

Fig. 8: The crew of the bathysphere, which supposedly saw the monster from underwater.

Let us look at the subsequent reports again then with a very skeptical view. The ’54 one could have simply been an attempt at aligning the monster more with its supposed fossil relative or, more likely if it was an actual sighting and not just made up, the man and his son could have simply been describing an Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), which do live in Italy. The August sighting at Dongo is way too vague in its description of the monster and at least one skeptic researcher named Giorgio Castiglioni (on whom I could find no information because, again, everything regarding Lariosauro is so badly sourced) considers it an outright hoax. The bathysphere story seems to have actually happened, as there are pictures of Pagani with his bathysphere, so we have to take that one more seriously. However, all he and his crew described is an animal with a vaguely crocodile-like head, which could be explained by a number of different known animals in the lake viewed under low-light conditions, first and foremost the southern pike Esox cisalpinus (which was, as a side note, until 2011 considered to simply be a variant of the northern pike Esox lucius). In extreme cases, pikes can grow up to 1.5 meters long, perhaps even larger. As for the 2003 sighting, a bunch of things can create large eel- or snake-like forms on water, such as boat-wakes and seiches. Groups of otters are also well-known for swimming behind each other in lanes, creating the classic multi-humped sea serpent form if viewed from afar.

In summary, as could probably be predicted from the start, there really is not much a mystery here, but the story of Lariosauro is still interesting from a historical and ethnozoological viewpoint. It is most likely the creation of a monster borne out of historical trauma, economic crisis and a renewed interest in local paleontology.

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Related Posts:

Literary Sources:

  • Naish, Darren: Hunting Monsters.Cryptozoology and the reality behind the myths, London 2017).
  • Pagani, Emanuele: Il monstro del lago di Como, il lariosauro, Como 2012.
  • Rieppel, Olivier: Mesozoic Sea Dragons. Triassic Marine Life from the Ancient Tropical Lagoon of Monte San Giorgio, Bloomington 2019.

Online Sources/Further Reading:

Image Sources:

  • Fig. 7: Rieppel 2019, p. 16.
  • Fig. 8 : Pagani 2012, p. 1.