Monster of the Week: The Krampus

Disguised 'Nikolaus'es and 'Krampus'es in Austria, 1935 Imagno/Getty Images

I trust you're familiar with the krampus: a species of alpine snow demon famous for its peculiar custom of terrifying, beating and kidnapping naughty children each and every December. Kids fear them, holiday-weary adults love them and at one point the Austrian government outlawed their bestial ways.

Krampus Biology

Stories and deceptions of the krampus vary, but we can piece together a fairly consistent physical description: A bipedal, humanoid goat with a long cow's tail, cloven hoofs and a lengthy prehensile tongue reminiscent of a giraffe's. The tongue is especially interesting as the krampus is frequently seen to coil the appendage around naughty children.

(Imagno/Getty Images)

If the krampus is primarily carnivorous, the tongue may have evolved to facilitate the consumption of human children -- though such a biological adaptation is unlike anything found in the rest of the animal kingdom. Certainly iguanas, frogs and woodpeckers all use elongated tongues to "grab" prey, but I've yet to come across a natural-world organism that constricts its prey with a prehensile tongue.

The closest analog we find in nature is the 18-20 inch (45-50 centimeter) prehensile giraffe tongue, capable of coiling around shoots and leaves and pulling them into the animal's mouth. This might lead you to believe the krampus feeds primarily on vegetation, as is certainly more befitting of the orders Bovidae (which includes cloven-hoofed goats) and Artiodactyla (which includes even-toed ungulate giraffes).

Krampus Commerce

But perhaps the krampus is something else entirely: a hoofed carnivore descended from the extinct order Mesonychid, predatory land ungulates -- or a relative of the long-extinct Artiodactyla Andrewsarchus, which some paleontologists interpret as a cloven-hoofed carnivore.

D. Kindersley/Getty

Either way, it seems the krampus forged a cooperative relationship with Alpine humans: Once a year they descend to scare and even remove unruly children -- as well as dispense coal.

This leads me to wonder if the primary exchangehere is a trade of human children for Krampus-mined coal, thus providing both cold humans and meat-hungry krampi with fuel for the winter.

It wouldn't be an 1820 holiday party without Krampus.

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.