Monday, June 30, 2014

Mokèlé-Mbèmbé, Part 5: “The Real Brontosaurus of the Congo”

This very inaccurate  reconstruction of a Diplodocus is similar to what is being described from Lake Tele.

In the previous chapter, I told of the various expeditions to the Lake Tele area in search of a living brontosaurus. According to native descriptions the animal is 5-10 m (15-30 feet) long, much of which is neck and tail, with scaly reddish-brown to gray skin, a snake-like head that has a sort of fleshy frill on the back (which is often compared to a rooster’s comb in texture), and three webbed toes at the end of short legs. It may also have filaments growing on its head or neck and two pouches or pocket-like depressions near the junction of its neck and shoulders. The creature hides in the mud during the day with only its nostrils showing and travels and feeds mostly at night. It floats in the water, stretching its neck out to pluck fruit hanging from vines that lay low over the water. 

As any paleontologist will point out this description sounds nothing like a sauropod of any kind. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the older water dwelling dinosaurs of the 1020s to 1960s but in others, it is radically different than even those outdated theories.  This has caused some to dismiss the reports as either wishful thinking or accounts of a new species of lizard. However, there is a simple logical answer to the Congo sauropod reports and this answer was discovered way back in 1981.

That year Mackal received a letter from a J. M. Lefebure of Pretoria Africa who claimed to have seen the Mokèlé-mbèmbé and studied its tracks in the 1960’s. The sighting was obscured do to distance and haze but it was a large mass estimated to be 20-30 feet long with a very small head held at an angle to the neck. The tracks were formed by a by a central furrow made by the creatures body dragging itself through the mud. This furrow was between 3-feet wide. On each side of this furrow were flipper marks 2-3 feet wide by 3-4 feet long with the deeper imprint deeper of five or six toes partially obscured by the webbing that were approximately 3 inches wide. The flipper-marks were compared to those of a duck.  The flipper marks were between five and 6 feet on each side of the belly mark and the toes of the rear feet overlapped those of the front. The shrubs and plants that were on the spoor were crushed like a bulldozer. 

These tracks are nothing like those of a sauropod dinosaur or a monitor lizard. They are without a doubt turtle tracks and thus are a great clue to the identity of the n’yamala.  In addition, during this expedition Mackal and Bryan discovered several other local cryptids one of which he called the “Ndendeki”. This was a huge variety of African Soft-shelled turtle (Trionyx triungus) found in the vicinity of Lake Tele that supposedly had a shell with a diameter of 4-5 meters (12-15 feet). We now know that this was a miss-print and Mackal actually meant the total length of the animal rather than shell diameter but this is still a huge turtle. 
The Giant African Soft-shell

The African soft-shell has an enormous range encompassing much of Africa, parts of the Middle East, and as far north as Turkey. It is found in a wide variety of habitats including rivers, streams, lagoons, swamps, lakes, and has even been captured 3 or 4 km (2 miles) out at sea. In color, it is olive-gray to brown and juveniles may have yellow spots as well as a modest vertebral keel along the back. Like all soft-shells, the bony parts of the shell are simply a light framework covered by skin. It is nothing like the horny shell of the typical turtle and allows these animals to swim and run with amazing quickness as can be seen with this footage of the American species:

In addition, T. triunguis, like most soft-shells, spends the daytime laying in the muddy bottoms of waterways using cutaneous and pharyngeal respiration to satisfy its oxygen demands. It comes out at night to feed and can both swim quickly and run with surprising speed on its three-toed feet thanks to the fact that its shell is covered with skin instead of heavy horn. Thus, behavior also matches the Mokèlé-mbèmbé.

Long thought to never get bigger than 1 meter (3 feet) in length new findings have shown that the Congo population is one of the largest of all turtles. With a total shell length of 120 cm (3 feet 9 inches) and a mass of over 60 kg (132 lbs).

Some confusion of the length of the gigantic turtles as stated by the Natives is probably the result of differences in measurement. In the scientific measurement of turtles, the overall length is not measured but rather just the length of the shell. In a soft-shelled turtle, the head and neck can be long as the shell a turtle only a meter and a half over the curve would be reported as three meters long overall including the neck and tail. Dividing Mackal’s Ndendeki lengths by a third gives a shell length of 1.3-1.6 meters (4-5 feet) which is close enough to known T. triunguis length especially if measured along the curve of the shell. 

A picture worth a 1000 words: a soft-shell turtle (enlarged to the size of the largest African specimens) in  scale with some typical pygmies. Thanks to Dale Drinnon for permission to post this image.
As Dale Drinnon has pointed out the sightings of Mokèlé-mbèmbé simply do not match sauropod anatomy but do match a turtle. According to the sightings, the creatures have legs that are stuck on the sides of the belly like those of a lizard. These legs end in webbed three-toed feet and that when the animals come on land they slide on the belly leaving flipper marks. Note that during his expedition Powell obtained results that matched Plesiosaurs as well as sauropod dinosaurs. This indicates that the natives were responding to the distinctive look of a rounded back and long neck protruding from the water and no other feature.

The comb-like decoration on the head was thought by Dale to be due to confusion with other traditional water-monsters from the area. However, the turtle’s anatomy easily explains this feature as well as the tendrils on the face and the so-called pouches near the shoulder.

In the image below the giant African soft-shell has its head partially retracted into its shell and in this position, the neck skin bunches up into a sort of frill behind the head. Thus, the frill occasionally alluded to. In addition, young African soft-shells often have several rows of small tubercles that disappear with growth thus explaining the rare report of tendrils on the head and neck. The final feature, the pockets are simply the hollows where the neck and front limbs protrude from the shell.

Young African soft-shell showing "frill" behind the head
 As for the supposedly poisonous flesh note, that the meat took several days to butcher and (if the account by Jorgen Birket-Smith was of the same event) fed the villagers for a week. This is long enough for bacteria to form causing food poisoning. It also obviously did not kill everyone as the survivors of the tale prove. In fact, these turtles are commonly eaten but some tribes have strong taboos against eating it.

These turtles may not be between a full-grown hippo and bush elephant in size but they are defiantly bulky and the description reminded explorers of dinosaurs. Even before his death, Roy Mackal thought that some sightings of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé were actually those of Trionyx triunguis.

So why didn’t Mackal realize that the Lake Tele Mokèlé-mbèmbé and T. triunguis were the same animal? Simply because be believed that Giant soft-shells were fully carnivorous and the Mokèlé-mbèmbé ate fruit. However, it turns out that some of the informants claimed that the creatures ate fish as well as Molambo fruit. Moreover, according to ‘Turtles of the World’ by Franck Bonin, Bernard Devaux, and Alain Dupre the Giant African Soft-shell is a true omnivore that consumes fish, insects, mollusks, amphibians, plants, and fallen fruit. It also is ‘unpopular with fishermen because it can damage their nets while trying to get at the fish therein and becomes very aggressive if one tries to pick it up.”  This last explains why the pygmies were so upset when the Mokèlé-mbèmbé kept invading their fishing spot.

Therefore, there is little doubt that the classic brontosaurian Mokèlé-mbèmbé is nothing more than Trionyx triunguis, the Giant African Soft-shell turtle. The environment is fits, the behavior is fits, the appearance is the same, and who knows they may even get bigger than what is currently thought. As the Cryptodominion pointed out years ago this creature is defiantly a turtle. It is not even an unknown turtle as Trionyx triunguis has been known by science since 1775.  Therefore, the classical Mokèlé-mbèmbé should be removed from cryptozoology lists, as it is no longer a cryptid.


Bonin, Frank et all, (2006). “Turtles of the World”.  John Hopkins University Press.

Drinnon, Dale. “Congo Dragons And The Colossal Confusions Over The Colossal Beasts”. Frontiers of Zoology,  

Drinnon, Dale. “Titanic Turtles of Tele ”. Frontiers of Zoology,

Drinnon, Dale. “Was a Mokele-mbembe killed at Lake Tele?” Frontiers of Zoology, Was a Mokele-mbembe killed at Lake Tele

Mackal, Roy P. (1987). A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele-Mbembe. E.J. Brill.

Naish, Darren. “Giant African softshells – wow!” Tetropod Zoology, January 16, 2010.

Cryptodominion, ‘Prehistoric Reptiles’:

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