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The Yellow-lipped Sea Krait (Laticauda colubrina)

The coral reef is a super-competitive ecosystem where every surface hides a hidden mouth, a poison dart, or a camouflaged hunter.  However the reef is also a place rich in resources where it is possible to make a good living.  It is sort of the New York City of ocean habitats.  Some animals have been part of reef-like ecosystems for a tremendously long time, but one of my favorite reef animals, the banded sea snake or yellow-lipped sea krait (Laticauda colubrina) is a latecomer.  Like the coral reef catfish (which descended from freshwater river fish ancestors but evolved into a saltwater coral reef dweller), the krait has put its land-dwelling roots behind it and moved out into the ocean—although it remains an air-breather like all snakes and it must also come ashore to drink freshwater since it has not yet evolved the super kidneys necessary for dealing with saltwater. Yellow-lipped sea kraits are widespread throughout the Indo-Pacific Ocean.  They grow up to 2.2 meters (6 and a half feet long).

Laticauda colubrina

An accomplished hunter, the banded sea snake lives on cuttlefish, squid, fish, fish eggs, and small arthropods which throng the shallow reef.  The krait’s venom is among the most poisonous on earth, but fortunately the creatures have easy going dispositions (and small fangs) and they rarely bite humans.  Their closest relatives among the land snakes are the cobras.


Yellow-lipped sea kraits shed their skin far more often than do land snakes in order to protect themselves from parasites: sometimes they change skins as often as every fortnight.  Kraits are viviparous and do not bear eggs but rather give birth to completely autonomous baby snakes which are born with their parents’ swimming and hunting ability.  The snakes are such gifted swimmers thanks not just too their sinuous bodies but also to laterally compressed tails which they use like paddles to propel themselves through the water. Another feature which the kraits possess to deal with their watery habitat is nostrils which clamp shut
The kraits are extremely beautiful: their bodies are banded with black and pale blue rings.  They have a balck head with a yellow snout. Their beauty gives them a special place in art and literature.  I like to imagine that the yellow-lipped krait was one of the mysterious beautiful “water-snakes” who caused the ancient mariners unconscious epiphany which broke the curse he labored under and marked the climax of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (a profoundly beautiful miniature epic about the importance of treating animals kindly):

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

Banded Sea Snake (Jennifer Belote, acrylic on canvas)

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