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The National Zoo in Washington D.C. has a duck pond over by the parking lot entrance. There are numerous pretty North American ducks in the pond as well as mute swans from Europe, black swans from Australia, and various fancy ducks from around the globe–but these beautiful waterfowl pale in comparison to lions, pandas, and elephants–so visitors are inclined to rapidly push by the little lake. One day (when I too was rushing by) I noticed a ghostly white presence flitting around the bottom of the pond. At first I thought I was hallucinating and then I thought that a penguin or puffin had escaped the Arctic area. It was an amazingly dexterous aquatic hunter swimming underwater hunting for small fish. I watched for some time before it popped to the surface and revealed itself to be…a male smew!
Smews (Mergellus albellus) are the world’s smallest merganser ducks. They may seem alien because, for modern birds, they are ancient. Fossils of smews have been found in England which date back to 2 million years ago. The smew is last surviving member of the genus Mergellus—which includes fossil seaducks from the middle Miocene (approximately 13 million years ago). Smews breed along the northern edge of the great Boreal forests of Europe and Asia. During winter they fly south to England, Holland, Germany, the Baltic Sea, & the Black Sea. Like other Mersangers, smews are hunters: they dive underwater and deftly swim down fish (showing ballet-like grace during the process). Like many other sorts of piscivorous hunters, smews have heavily serrated beaks (which are further specialized with a wicked hooked tip).
The drake smew has been poetically described as having the combined appearance of cracked ice and a panda. Female smew ducks are plainer—they have gray bodies, chestnut crowns and faces, and a white neck. Although smews are from an ancient lineage and live in a difficult part of the world, they are still not doing badly. Their numbers have declined somewhat, but they are not endangered (which is good news because they are very lovely and captivating).
Just kidding—aside from zoos and the pet trade, Ireland actually famously has no snakes. It is one the few snake-free large islands on Earth joined only by New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica (well—everywhere far enough north or south is snake-free: the reptiles don’t really thrive in places where there is permafrost or truly cold winters). Legend has it that it was Saint Patrick who drove the snakes out of Ireland. Standing on a great hill he lifted up his crosier and focused divine energy upon the unlucky reptiles which then writhed en masse into the sea and never returned to the emerald island.
It has always been a bit unclear to me why Saint Patrick would do such a thing. Ecoystems which undergo such catastrophic changes tend to go haywire with great alacrity! Fortunately the story is entirely a myth. If snakes ever lived in Ireland (and it doesn’t seem like they did), they were long gone by the time the first Christians showed up. The real reason is even more interesting than the dramatic Moses-like power of Saint Patrick, but as with most actual answers it is also more complex.
Evidence suggests that snakes evolved 130 million years ago during the Cretaceous. At the time Ireland was, um, underwater at the bottom of a warm chalky sea. Early snakes slithered their way across landbridges, rafted to islands on washed away logs, and swam (like the sea snakes) from island to island but, during the Mesozoic, there was no Ireland for them to go to.
When the Mesozoic era ended in the great ball of fire, the continents again shifted. Snakes went through a substantial evolutionary period during the Miocene and the original python-like snakes evolved into many different forms. These new varieties of snakes slithered into grasslands, deserts, forests, and oceans around the world, but they still could not get to Ireland (now above the waves) because a cold ocean was in their way. Then the end of the Miocene brought an ice age. To quote the National Zoo’s essay on “Why Ireland Has No Snakes”:
The most recent ice age began about three million years ago and continues into the present. Between warm periods like the current climate, glaciers have advanced and retreated more than 20 times, often completely blanketing Ireland with ice. Snakes, being cold-blooded animals, simply aren’t able to survive in areas where the ground is frozen year round. Ireland thawed out for the last time only 15,000 years ago.
So Ireland remains snake-free because of the world’s temperamental geology. The island was underwater or covered by ice during certain eras when the snakes might have arrived–geography has conspired against serpents coming to Eire and setting up shop. The age of humans however has been marked by numerous introduced species cropping up everywhere. I wonder how long Ireland will be snake free when a pet shop accident or crazy hobbyist could unleash a plague of serpents on the green island. The fact that such a thing has yet to happen seems almost as miraculous as the original myth.
Like the Arctic landscape, Inuit mythology is austere, cruel, strange, and beautiful. Just as the dialects of the Inuit language differ based on geography, so too many of the sacred stories of the Inuit share the same elements yet also vary from one region to the next. One such story is the myth of Sedna—the goddess of marine mammals, the frozen depths of the sea, and of the spirit’s realm below. There are many versions of the tale. Here is my favorite.
Sedna was a beautiful giantess. Her great size was a hardship for her father, who had to spend most of his time hunting in order to feed himself and his daughter. However, because she was so lovely, she had many suitors. Sedna was proud of her looks and her strength, so she rejected every suitor as unworthy of her.
One day a well-dressed stranger came to visit Sedna’s father. Though the visitor’s clothes were opulent and his language was cultured, he kept his hood pulled down so that his face remained in darkness. The stranger talked of his great wealth and the life of ease which Sedna would enjoy if she were his wife. Then he appealed to the father’s greed with gifts of fish, animal skins, and precious materials. Since hunting was bad and his stores were running out, Sedna’s father felt he had little choice but to comply–so he drugged his daughter and presented her to the stranger. As soon as she was loaded on his kayak the elegant stranger paddled off into the frozen ocean with unnatural speed.
When Sedna came around to consciousness, she was in a great nest on top of a cliff. The only furnishings were dark feathers, fish bones, and a few clumps of skin and fur. The elegant stranger cackled and threw back his hood. He was none other than Raven, the capricious trickster deity who had arrived second in the world, soon after the creator had shaped it. Raven kept his beautiful stolen wife trapped in his nest and he fed her on fish (although she kept her ears open and listened to his magic words).
In the mean time, Sedna’s father became unhappy with the bargain he had struck. He set out on his kayak to find his daughter and rescue her from the mysterious suitor. Night and day he paddled, till finally he heard her cries for help intermingled with the howling winds.
Sedna’s father arrived while raven was off pursuing his other ventures, and Sedna quickly climbed down to his kayak so they could start back to the mainland. They paddled hard, but before they could reach land, Sedna spotted a distant pair of black wings in the sky. Raven had returned home to his nest and found his bride was missing. In anger at being cheated, Raven called out magic words of anger to the sea spirits. The winds rose to a gale and huge waves pounded the kayak.
Lost in terror, Sedna’s father cast his daughter into the ocean to placate Raven and the water spirits. Despite the storm and her father’s imprecations, she clung to the gunwale of the kayak. Then, in fury, her father pulled out his flint knife and hacked at her fingers. Sedna’s first finger came off and, amidst blood and saltwater, was transformed into narwhals and belugas. Her father hacked off her second finger which transformed into fur seals and ringed seals. Finally the knife cut through her third finger which transformed into the great walruses. Unable to grip the kayak with her maimed hand, Sedna fell into the sea. Rather than submit to her raven husband or her greedy father, she let herself sink beneath the waves down to the icy bottom of the ocean.
Beneath the waves she found Adlivun, the Inuit underworld where spirits are purified before they wander on to other worlds. With the help of her powerful new children she made herself ruler there. Her legs gradually changed into a mighty tail. Her humankind ebbed from her and was replaced by divine power and wrath. Sedna is still worshiped as the underworld god by Inuit peoples. She hates hunters both because of the wrongs she suffered at the hands of her father and because they continue to kill so many of her children—the seals, whales, and walruses. From time to time she raises a terrible storm to drown seafarers, or she gathers together all of the marine mammals within her long beautiful hair where the hunters can never find them. It is at such times that the shaman must travel down into Adlivun to beg with her and to praise her beauty and strength. Only then will she reluctantly let the storms abate and allow all of the marine mammals to go back to the coasts–where they are again in danger from Inuit spears.