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Many reptiles and amphibians are beautifully colored, particularly the poisonous ones. When I was growing up, I had a set of field guides of the creatures of North America. Of all the land animals of North America, the animals which I thought were most beautifully colored were the coral snakes. Coral snakes constitute four genera of snakes within the family of elapid snakes (cobras, mambas, sea snakes, kraits, and other poisonous snakes from warm climates). Many coral snakes live in South America and the old world (where some coral snake species are evolving into sea snakes), but I’m going to stick to writing about the gorgeous red, yellow, and black coral snakes of North America. These snakes are brightly colored to warn potential predators that they are extremely venomous. This strategy has failed somewhat when it comes to intimidating humans, who have a collective fascination with pretty colors.
There are three coral snakes which live in the United States. The eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) ranges from North Carolina to Texas (including Florida and the Gulf Coast swamps). The Texas coral Snake (Micrurus tener) ranges from northeast Mexico up through Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The Arizona coral snake (Micruroides euryxanthus) lives in the Sonoran desert through Southern New Mexico, Arizona, and Sinaloa. All species of coral snakes in the United States can be identified by the fact that their red bands touch the yellow bands (which is in marked opposition to mimics like king snakes and milk snakes). Coral snakes from Central/South America and from Asia do not always follow this rule: the black bands can sometimes touch the red bands, or the bands can be colors other than red, yellow, and black–or there might be no bands at all!
Coral Snakes are fossorial predators which spend most of their life just beneath the leaf litter or loose topsoil where they hunt lizards, frogs, insects, and smaller snakes. Baby snakes are 18 centimeters (7 inches long) when they hatch from their eggs. Adult snakes can grow to 0.6 meters (2 feet) in length. Coral snakes can live up to seven years in captivity.
Coral Snakes are extremely poisonous, but they are also shy and retiring. Instead of hanging around biting, they would prefer to escape as quickly as possible. This makes sense from the snake’s perspective, since their fangs are very tiny and they have to chew directly on their prey in order to inject a fatal dose. Since they have tiny mouths, it is not necessarily easy for them to score a direct bite on humans. Additionally their venom acts slowly—at first there is only a mild tingling associated with the bite. Lethargy, disorientation, and nausea set in hours later. In extreme cases, coral snake bites can cause respiratory arrest. Fatal bites are extremely rare: most sources state that nobody has been killed by a coral snake in the US since antivenin was released in 1967 (although I also found allusions to a 2009 case where a man laughed off a bite only to die hours later).
Coral Snake antivenin was solely manufactured by one US drug company, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (now a wholly owned subsidy of Pfizer Inc.). In 2003 Wyeth ceased manufacturing coral snake antivenin since too few people were bitten to make the product profitable. There is still a small supply left on hand (although the expiration date has been extended twice), but Pfizer does not seem to have any intention of pursuing a microscopic niche market when it has more profitable businesses to pursue. Foreign pharmaceutical companies continue to produce coral snake antivenin, but they do not sell it in the United States because of prohibitive licensing and regulatory costs (hooray! the United States health care system is unsolving problems which were figured out 40 years ago!).
*Don’t be this guy.
As the world starts to awaken for spring the first trees begin to come into bud. Here in the east coast of North America one sort of early-blooming tree particularly stands out along the highways because of its bright purple-pink blossoms. It is the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) a hardy small tree native to eastern North America. Although it is native to deciduous woodlands from the Atlantic coast to Oklahoma and from southern Canada down to northern Mexico, it has been grown elsewhere as an ornamental tree.
The eastern redbud is a member of the Cercis genus, (part of the pea family Fabaceae) which consists of approximately ten species which live in a temperate belt stretching west from China all the way around the world to California. Probably the most well-known member of the family is the beautiful Mediterranean redbud, Cercis siliquastrum, a 10-15 meter (30-45 feet) tree which lives from southern Spain and France to Syria and Israel. The tree has lovely magenta flowers in spring and its tangy buds have featured in salads or fritters for centuries, however the little Mediterranean redbud is most famous to Christians as the tree upon which Judas hanged himself when the agony of his betrayal grew too great for him to live with.
Of course I’m cheating somewhat by writing about the eastern redbud a whole month before it blooms here in Brooklyn, but it should be flowering soon (or now) in the south. Additionally, if you live in eastern China, Yunnan, South Asia, Persia, Asia Minor, middle-to-southern Europe, or California, there will be some sort of native redbud to watch for as well. Now that you (and the larger portion of humanity) know to watch for it, you will be alert during the rest of early spring when its slender boughs of brilliant purple-pink stand out against the gray-brown and the pale green. It is a short-lived and singular grace note to the season.
New York City is fortunate to have a thriving wetland inside the city. Visitors who have flown in or out of JFK have seen the huge intertidal salt marsh known as Jamaica Bay which lies along the boder of Brooklyn and Queens. Unfortunately the wetland has been eroding away into the Atlantic Ocean. This is partly because the east coast is a receding coastline and partly because of overdevelopment: there are numerous large sewage treatment facilities around the bay. The City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been trying to clean up the bay and prevent the loss of a uniquely beautiful wilderness. To do so they will need allies…little gray faceless allies.
Jamaica Bay is still host to 120 species of bird and 48 species of fish, however one particular keystone life form has gone missing. During the last 5 decades the Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) has vanished entirely from Jamaica Bay. The mollusks used to be so plentiful as to be a hindrance to navigation, but they gradually fell victim to overfishing and the pollution caused by 8 million pushy, pushy New Yorkers.
All of this was true until two days ago (October 5, 2010) when the city laid down huge beds of oyster shells and reseeded Jamaica bay with endearing baby oysters. The DEP has spent hundreds of millions of dollars modernizing and improving the water treatment plants around the bay to shrink nitrogen levels and give the oysters a fighting chance.
Hopefully the young oysters will thrive and again become a backbone of the recovering bay ecosystem. There are terrible perils out there facing the stalwart bivalves. Stressed oysters are susceptible to two horrid diseases known as “Dermo and “MSX“, both virulent pathogens with the names of German industrial bands. If the little mollusks can establish a foothold, filter feeding oysters are an immense boon to water quality. One large adult can clean up to 48 gallons of water in 24 hours. I’m rooting enthusiastically for the new neighbors.