OWEN1860D.jpg (28580 bytes)

"A snake drawn through the shell of a turtle"

Copyright © 2005-2009 by Mike Everhart

Created 10/14/2005

Updated 09/07/2009

LEFT: Plesiosaurus, adapted from Figure 71 in Owen, R. 1860. Palaeontology or a systematic summary of extinct animals and their geological relations. Edinburgh, Adam and Charles Black. xv + 420 p. 142 text figs. (1st edition)


Almost since their discovery in England about 1820,  plesiosaurs have been described as "a snake drawn through the shell of a turtle." The source of that description, however, has not been pinned down to any one person and constitutes a very real paleo-mystery. The source of the quotation has been addressed at various times on the Dinosaur Mailing List and VertPaleo list server. Much of the information below has been taken from those two sources, as well as from the original publications.

In a discussion on Paleonet in September, 2005, Richard Forrest noted that it was used in a German publication (Dames, Wilhelm [Barnim]. 1895. Die Plesiosaurier der süddeutschen Liasformation. Abhandlungen der Königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften in Berlin (physics-math), pp. 1-83, pls. i-v. [The plesiosaurs of the Lias Formation of southern Germany]). Quote "...dass man Plesiosaurus mit einer durch einen Schildkrõtenpanzer gezogenen Schlange vegleich ..." which translates as "...one can compare the Plesiosaurus to a snake threaded through the shell of a turtle.." It is also mentioned in Zarnik (1925), which was written in Serbo-Croat (Zarnik, B.; 1925; Sketologiji plesiosauriija, sa prinosima mehanici kraljeznice u recentnih sauropsida.; Societas Scientiarum Naturalium Croatica, Hrvatskoga Naravoslovno Drestva; 38-39 pp.424-473 (On the ethology of plesiosaurs with contributions to the mechanism of the cervical vertebrae of recent sauropsids).

Dames, W. 1895. Die Plesiosaurier der süddeutschen Liasformation. Abhandl. k. Akad. Wissensch. Berlin, 1895, phys.-math. Cl., Abhandl. ii pp. 1-83, pls. i-v.]

Zarnik, B.; 1925; Sketologiji plesiosauriija, sa prinosima mehanici kraljeznice u recentnih sauropsida. Societas Scientiarum Naturalium Croatica, Hrvatskoga Naravoslovno Drestva; 38-39 pp.424-473.

Then Marco Signore suggested that "the serpent threaded through a turtle is also the definition Jules Verne gives of a plesiosaur in his Journey to the Centre of the Earth." (also noted by Chris Glen on the DML in August, 2003)

So I checked and found an excerpt from a translated (English) web version of "A Journey to the Center of the Earth: Chapter XXX (Terrific Saurian Combat) by Jules Verne. Note that the publication date was 1871 and there are some obvious exaggerations and mis-conceptions:

"The other is a monstrous serpent, concealed under the hard vaulted shell of the turtle, the terrible enemy of its fearful rival, the Plesiosaurus, or sea crocodile.

... The other was the mighty Plesiosaurus, a serpent with a cylindrical trunk, with a short stumpy tail, with fins like a bank of oars in a Roman galley.

Its whole body covered by a carapace or shell, and its neck, as flexible as that of a swan, rose more than thirty feet above the waves, a tower of animated flesh!"

The book, of course, includes illustrations... of the Ichthyosaurus biting the Plesiosaurus, the Plesiosaurus and Ichthyosaurus swimming near a beach, the Plesiosaurus surfacing under the raft, and the Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus locked in combat.

Regarding the last picture, "Note the heavy scales or plates on the back of the plesiosaur .... they look more like the shell of a tortoise than about anything else I can think of. Of course, the artist may have simply drawn the figure from Verne's written description (and his imagination). The "armor" on both animals also appears to be facing the wrong direction. Strange indeed!

Richard Ellis noted that he had written the following in his recent book, "Sea Dragons":

"The description of a plesiosaur as “a snake threaded through the body of a turtle,” has variously been attributed to Conybeare, De la Beche, Mantell, Owen, and both William Buckland and his son Frank, but its actual origin remains a mystery. In his 1824 description of the first plesiosaur fossil, Conybeare wrote, “In its motion, the animal resembled the turtle more than any other, and the turtle also, as it was better remarked, could we divest it of its shelly case, would present some slight approach in its general appearance to the plesiosaurus.” In 1837, Gideon Mantell wrote, “The reptile combines in its structure the head of a lizard with teeth like those of a crocodile, a neck resembling the body of serpent, a trunk and tail resembling of the proportions of a quadruped, with paddles like those of turtles.” In his 1914 Water Reptiles of the Past and Present, Samuel Williston wrote, “It was Dean Buckland who facetiously likened the plesiosaurs to a snake threaded through the shell of a turtle, but what Buckland actually wrote (in the 1836 Bridgewater Treatise), was: ‘To the head of a lizard, it united the teeth of a crocodile; a neck of enormous length, resembling the body of a serpent; a trunk and tail having the proportions of any ordinary quadruped, the ribs of a chamaeleon and the paddles of a whale.’”

Buckland, William. 1836. Geology and mineralogy considered with reference to natural theology.  Treatise VI. Vol. 1; xvi + 599 p; Vol. 2; vii + 128 p. London: William Pickering.

Note that Richard had originally posted this comment on the Dinosaur Mailing List in August, 2003 and that Jaime Headden had replied (August 8): "I think this is a case of paraphrasing and word of mouth. It may have been a non-published source, perhaps commonly known in the community for lecturing without publication, that Buckland made this statement, or that the allusion being looked for was paraphrased from someone reading this description. It may be futile to look for a particular printed reference."

Richard Forrest did some additional research on the web and commented, "Just for amusement, and thanks to Project Gutenberg, here are a few descriptions of plesiosaurs from popular works of fiction:

1871 - From "A Journey to the centre of the Earth" by Jules Verne "c'est un serpent cache dans la carapace d'une tortue, le terrible ennemi du premier, le Plesiosaurus!"(transl. "The other is a plesiosaurus (almost lizard), a serpent, armoured with the carapace and the paddles of a turtle; he is the dreadful enemy of the other."

1888 - From: "A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder" by James DeMille (1836?-1880)

"No," said the doctor, "I am coming to that now. That monster could have been no other than the Plesiosaurus, one of the most wonderful animals that has ever existed. Imagine a thing with the head of a lizard, the teeth of a crocodile, the neck of a swan, the trunk and tail of a quadruped, and the fins of a whale. magine a whale with its head and neck consisting of a serpent, with the strength of the former and the malignant fury of the latter, and then you will have the plesiosaurus. It was an aquatic animal, yet it had to remain near or on the surface of the water, while its long, serpent-like neck enabled it to reach its prey above or below with swift, far-reaching darts. Yet it had no armor, and could not have been at all a match for the ichthyosaurus. More's account shows, however, that it was a fearful enemy for man to encounter."

1912 - From "The Lost World" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)

"But it was different out upon the rose-tinted waters of the central lake. It boiled and heaved with strange life. Great slate-colored backs and high serrated dorsal fins shot up with a fringe of silver, and then rolled down into the depths again. The sand-banks far out were spotted with uncouth crawling forms, huge turtles, strange saurians, and one great flat creature like a writhing, palpitating mat of black greasy leather, which flopped its way slowly to the lake. Here and there high serpent heads projected out of the water, cutting swiftly through it with a little collar of foam in front, and a long swirling wake behind, rising and falling in graceful, swan-like
undulations as they went. It was not until one of these creatures wriggled on to a sand-bank within a few hundred yards of us, and exposed a barrel-shaped body and huge flippers behind the long serpent neck, that Challenger, and Summerlee, who had joined us, broke out into their duet of wonder and admiration.

'Plesiosaurus! A fresh-water plesiosaurus!" cried Summerlee. "That I should have lived to see such a sight! We are blessed, my dear Challenger, above all zoologists since the world began!'"

In October, 2005, Leslie Noè brought the subject up again, "I would like to make a comment on the recent discussion of the origin of the description of a plesiosaur (s.s.) as 'a turtle threaded through a turtle', and it's attribution to Jules Verne in 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth'. I note with interest that José Luis Sanz in his book 'Starring T. Rex' (Indiana University Press, 2002) posits that 'The description of the anatomy and behavior [sic] of the two large marine reptiles [an ichthyosaur and and plesiosaur] in the episode describing their fight is probably based on Louis Figuier's work, La Terre Avant le Déluge (The Earth before the Flood), which appeared in 1863 and provided a faithful interpretation of the paleontologic [sic] knowledge of the period' (p. 14).

Figuier, Louis [-Guillaume]. 1863. La terre avant le déluge.   Paris. 504 pp., 347 figs., 8 maps.
snaketurtle2.jpg (107067 bytes) A little delving turned up the following 'Figuier describes the plesiosaurus as a combination of a turtle and a serpent, with a cylindrical trunk and large paddles (p. 166-168 (cf. p. 199-201)).' Unfortunately I do not have a copy of Figuier's work at hand to check. Does anybody on the list? And is this the source of the problematic quote, or can someone go back yet further?

You may have to "cut and paste" the link to:


< http://home.netvigator.com/~wbutcher/articles/nothing%20new.htm >

Illustration by Adam Stuart Smith, Department of Zoology, University College Dublin; see also his website: The Plesiosaur Directory

Tommy Tyrberg noted that the "book is available online at Gallica:"  click "Télécharger" to download.  

Then added, "I've located the section about plesiosaurs in Figuier's book now, it's on page 188. The relevant section reads (a few accents are missing courtesy Adobe's OCR program - Corrected by ME):

"Un auteur l’a comparé à un serpent caché dans la carapace d‘une Tortue. Remarquons toutefois qu’il n’y a pas ici de carapace. Le Plèsiosaure a la tête du Lézard,
les dents du Crocodile, un cou d’une longueur démesurée, qui ressemble au corps d'un Serpent, les côtes du Caméléon, un tronc et une queue dont les proportions sont celles d’un quadrupède ordinaire, enfin les nageoires de la Baleine."

....so Figuier cites some unnamed earlier author. The quest goes ever on....."

To which I added, "For those of us who are language challenged, I had the passage roughly translated on line via Babel Fish" (with help from Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.):

"An author compared it with a snake hidden in the carapace of a turtle. Let us notice however that there is no carapace here. The plesiosaur has the head of a lizard, teeth of a crocodile, a neck of extreme length, which resembles the body of a snake, the ribs of a Chameleon, a trunk and a tail of which the proportions are those of an ordinary quadruped, and finally the fins of a whale."

Leslie Noè replied, "The quote [above] about the plesiosaur having the head of a lizard, etc. is from Buckland's (1836) 'Bridgewater Treatise', but he does not make the snake-turtle analogy, and neither does Conybeare, de la Beche or Hawkins to my knowledge. Mike Taylor (National Museums of Scotland) suggested Gideon Mantell (e.g. /Medals of Creation/) Lyell or Bakewell (amongst others) as the original source, although I have not yet had time to check these out. The search must continue."

That seemed to end the issue for the moment... then late one night, as I was reading the introduction of a new plesiosaur paper by O'Keefe and Carrano:

O'Keefe, F.R. and M.T. Carrano. 2005. Correlated trends in the evolution of the plesiosaur locomotor system. Paleobiology 31(4): 656-675.

... I came across this statement: "Richard Owen (1860, p. 230) once compared a plesiosaur's long graceful neck, stout body and four flippers to "a snake threaded through the trunk of a turtle."

Owen, Richard. 1860. Palaeontology or a systematic summary of extinct animals and their geological relations. Edinburugh, Adam and Charles Black. xv + 420 p. 142 text figs. (1st edition).

Although I didn't remember it, I had the paper, thanks to Earl Manning (Tulane University), and had already highlighted the passage on page 230 (and had it noted in my reptile references list as early as August, 2003): "Amongst the many figurative illustrations of the nature of the Plesiosaur in which popular writers have indulged, that which compares it to a snake threaded through the trunk of a turtle is the most striking; but the number of vertebrae in the Plesiosaur is no true indication of affinity with the ophidian order of reptiles."

Figuier may have been speaking of Owen's 1860 paper, and Owen in turn referred the source of the "illustration" to other "popular writers"... probably all the way back to Conybeare, Buckland, etc.

Note that in De la Beche and Conybeare (1821, p. 589), the seeds were sown for comparing plesiosaurs to marine turtles: "...a comparison with the paddles of the sea turtle will exhibit such fresh analogies as to indicate that in respect of the various forms of animal extremities, the Plesiosaurus holds as it were a middle place between it and the Ichthyosaurus; for we may remark in the first carpal series of the turtle three bones not unlike those of the Plesiosaurus..."

De la Beche, H. T., and W. D. Conybeare, 1821. Notice of the discovery of a new animal, forming a link between the Ichthyosaurus and crocodile, together with general remarks on the osteology of Ichthyosaurus. Transactions Geological Society London 5:559-594.

On October 25, 2005, Richard Forrest came across the following quote in a copy from an article from an unidentified journal (The drawing below was adapted from the paper provided by Richard Forrest. According to Richard, this specimen  is the holotype of Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni (Carte & Baily, 1863) (see also 1866 drawing done for the Ward Scientific catalog):

JurPlesia.jpg (15319 bytes) "The animal of the genus Plesiosaurus present, in their osteological structure, a remarkable deviation from all known and recent fossils; uniting the characters of the head of a lizard, with the teeth of a crocodile, to a neck of inordinate length, with such modifications of the ribs, the pectoral and pelvic arches, and the paddles, as to justify the graphic simile of an eminent Professor, that the Plesiosaurus might be compared to a serpent threaded through the shell of a turtle."
According to Richard in a later email, the proper citation is the Illustrated London News of May 26, 1849, p. 367, but another might be:

Moberley, (Dr.). 1849.   A large Plesiosaurus discovered in Lias at the alum works at Kettleness.   Rep. British Association for the Advancement of Science, Swansea XVIII (2) 78 (1848).

Leslie Noè (November 4, 2005) noted that Roy Moodie used the same quote (above) in this 1908 paper:

Moodie, R. L. 1908. The relationship of the turtles and plesiosaurs. Kansas University Science Bulletin 4(15): 319-32.

Mark Evans (December 7, 2005) took the quote back another 5 years he when provided the following passage from the 1844 printing of Mantell's The Medals of Creation (p. 714-715).  (Note that Bd refers to Buckland's (1836) Bridgewater Treatise and Wond. refers to Mantell's (1838) Wonders of Geology):

714                   MEDALS OF CREATION.             CHAP. XVII
















               (non-relevant ichthyosaur text removed)















Plesiosaurus.*  (Bd. pl. 16 – 19. Wond. p. 490.).

- The  animals   of    this    genus    present   in   their


                           * Brit. Assoc. Rep. 1839, p. 50.

                                 PLESIOSAURUS                       715


osteological structure a remarkable deviation from

all known recent and fossil reptiles; uniting the

characters of the head of a lizard, with the teeth of

a crocodile, to a neck of inordinate length, with such

modifications of the ribs, the pectoral and pelvic

arches, and the paddles, as to justify the graphic

simile of an eloquent Professor, that the Plesiosaurus

might be compared to a serpent threaded through

the shell of a turtle.  The character which immedi-

ately strikes the observer, is the extraordinary length

of the neck, and the relative smallness of the head.

The neck, which in most animals is formed of but

five vertebrae, and in the extremest recent example,

the Swan, does not exceed twenty-four, is in the

Plesiosaurus, composed of from twenty to forty

vertebrae; and, in some species, is four times the

length of the head, and equal to the entire length

of the body and tail; while the length of the head

(in P. dolichodeirus) is less than one-thirteenth of

the entire skeleton. The skull resembles that of

the crocodile in its general form, but is relatively

smaller; the breathing apertures are situated anterior

to the orbits on the highest part of the head.  The

lower jaw has the usual structure of the Saurians;

but the dentary bone is greatly expanded anteriorly,

and united in front (see Bd, pl. 19.).  The teeth

are implanted in separate sockets, as in the crocodile,

and there are from thirty to forty on each side of the

jaws. They   are    conical,   slender,  long, pointed,

slightly recurved, and longitudinally grooved from

Mark noted that "Mantell's Wonders of Geology appeared in 1838, and he doesn't use the phrase there (our copy is the 4th edition from 1839), so I wonder if he picked it up somewhere in the intervening few years? His actually attributed it to an "eloquent Professor", which was misquoted by the ILN as "eminent Professor". The obvious suspects would be Owen or Buckland. On thing that did happen around that time was Owen's First Report to the British Association (which was solely on ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs), which he gave in August 1839, and although he didn't use the phrase in his written version of the Report (published in 1840), he may have used it in his spoken presentation. However, Owen's 1860 use of the phrase, attributing it to "popular writers" would suggest that he didn't invent it, and would tend to point to Mantell (in typical Owen fashion, as calling Mantell a popular writer implies he hadn't been a serious rival to Owen prior to his death in 1852). So, Mantell used it first in print (so far), and Owen probably didn't coin it.    Maybe it was Buckland after all... Or maybe Mantell, modestly calling himself an 'eloquent Professor'..."

On May 1, 2007, Mark Evans wrote: "The previous earliest usage of the phrase was Gideon Mantell in 1844, who attributed it to "an eloquent professor". I have come across a transcript of student notes taken of William Buckland's Oxford University Geology Lectures for 1832 where it says that Plesiosaurus is like " a sea serpent run through a turtle". The full post is on the Plesiosaur Forum (http://www.plesiosaur.com/forum/index.php).

Although the phraseology is slightly different, this is good evidence that Buckland was the "eloquent professor", and he was using the serpent/turtle analogy by at least 1832, eight years after the discovery of the first complete plesiosaur specimen."

Reference: Boylan, P. J. 1984. William Buckland 1784-1856: Scientific Institutions, Vertebrate Palaeontology, and Quaternary Geology. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Leicester.

To which Eric Buffetaut (May 1, 2007) replied, "Cuvier (in "Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles") already remarked on the snake-like appearance of the neck of plesiosaurs, and noted that the trunk was like that of a quadruped, but apparently did not think of the analogy with a turtle. I suppose that he was not the first to comment on the snake-like neck, but I have not checked the early English papers describing plesiosaur remains.   Cuvier also compared the plesiosaur neck with that of a swan.

When I asked for a citation, he then added: "I found Cuvier's comments in my copy of the 4th (and last) edition of "Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles", vol. 10, published in 1836 (4 years after Cuvier's death). In general, this posthumous edition does not differ much from the 3rd edition, published before Cuvier's death, but that would need checking.

The complete reference is: Cuvier, G. 1836. Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles. Quatrième édition. Edmond d'Ocagne, Paris. Tome dixième, 496 p.

Plesiosaurs are the last extinct animals discussed in Cuvier's work. On p. 446, he mentions the discovery of a nearly complete skeleton in 1824 at Lyme Regis and notes that the neck was extremely long, consisting of more vertebrae than in long-necked birds, even the swan which shows the greatest number of neck vertebrae among living animals.

On p. 455, he writes (Eric's translation): "It remains certain that the plesiosaurus, when alive, must have shown a real snake's neck borne by a trunk, the proportions of which were little different from those of an ordinary quadruped".

The French text runs: "Il n'en reste pas moins certain que le plésiosaurus, dans l'état de vie, devait offrir un véritable cou de serpent porté sur un tronc dont les proportions différaient peu de celles d'un quadrupède ordinaire".

I really wonder whether the snake's neck analogy was used before Cuvier by earlier authors, such as De la Beche and Conybeare - I haven't had time to check.



June, 2007:  From Richard Forest's Plesiosaur.com web site, a photograph of a label found in the collections of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History with specimen J.28587, the holotype of Plesiosaurus macromus (Owen, 1940).  The note was presumbably written by Sir Richard Owen and reads: "Plesiosaurus.  The plesiosaurus has the head of a crocodile, the neck has forty-one vertebrae, & resembles the body of a serpent, the trunk & tail having the proportions of an ordinary quadreped; the ribs of a chamelion & and the Paddles of a whale."

Plate IIIa.jpg (32867 bytes) December 16, 2007 - Just another reference to the source of the quote from: Hutchinson, H. N. 1897. Extinct Monsters. (5th Printing) Chapman and Hall London, 270 pp.(Page 53)

                “A glance at our illustration, Plate III [Left], will show this strange creature was not inaptly compared at the time to a snake treaded through the body of a turtle.

                Dr. Buckland truly observes that the discovery of this genus forms one of the most important additions that geology has made to comparative anatomy. “It is of the Plesiosaurus,” says that graphic author, in his Bridgewater Treatise, that Cuvier asserts the structure to have been the most heteroclite, and its characters altogether the most monstrous that have been yet found amid the ruins of a former world. To the head of a lizard it united the teeth of a crocodile; a neck of enormous length, resembling the body of a serpent, a trunk and tail having the proportions of an ordinary quadruped; the ribs of a chameleon, and the paddles of a whale. Such are the strange combinations of forma and structure of the Plesiosaurus—a genus, the remains of which, after interment for thousands of years amidst the wreak of millions of extinct inhabitants of the ancient earth, are at length recalled to light by the researches of the geologist, and submitted to our examination in nearly perfect a state as the bones of species that are now existing upon the earth.””

The search goes on and on. (Mike Everhart, June 25, 2007).  Please feel free to contribute!!