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It is Mardi Gras today: tonight the season of carnival excess and frivolity comes to a crashing end at midnight as Lent begins. Well…actually I am from Appalachia, a land of hypocritical puritans and runaway indentured Protestants and I don’t really remember any of this Carnival business from when I was growing up…but I do know about it…from Venetian art! That is why today we are traveling back to the decadent Venice of the 18th century–hundreds of years after Venice’s reign as the dominant military and cultural power of the Mediterranean was over—but in an era when the City of Masks was still the preferred playground for cosmopolitan European aristocrats. Venetian art of the great era was ruled by titans like Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese…but even centuries later during the 1700s it could still produce masters like Canaletto (who painted those vast watery Grand Canal pictures which you undoubtedly know) and my personal favorite 18th century painter, Pietro Longhi.

Longhi paints in the literary/social critique style of Hogarth, but, unlike Hogarth. his pictures are rarely straightforward morality tales. Usually his small intimate canvases superficially present people dancing, drinking coffee, playing cards, or meeting friends in a sitting room. Closer examination discloses all manner of duplicity hidden in these small scenes which turn out to be filled with mountebanks, debauchees, flimflam men, cardsharps, pickpockets, gigolos, and procuresses (and other categories of extinct grifters that modern critics can’t even understand).

Masked Party in a Courtyard (Pietro Longhi, 1755) oil on canvas

For example, in this small painting (now in the Saint Louis Museum of Art) two different groups of revelers take refreshments in a small courtyard during the carnival season. A conventional description of the painting would probably be something like ” a debutante and her chaperone enjoy hot chocolate from an important admirer while their friends chat in the background.” But what is actually going on here? Who are all of these enigmatic revelers wearing hall-masks and veils? What is actually in that beverage which the porcelain faced beauty is carefully holding but not drinking? What is the wire implement held by the figure in the upper right or the ancient sumptuous platform which intrudes a single voluptuary angle into the painting? Why is the figure looming above the young woman so menacing? At the composition’s dead center is a glowing pink flower, visible beneath the young lady’s veil just above her heart. What’s up with that?

I can’t definitively answer any of these questions! However my proposed explanation of this painting would be as follows:

A wealthy but older nobleman presses his amorous suit on a teenage beauty by offering her a cup of chocolate (an expensive new world luxury reputed to be an aphrodisiac). The nobleman’s manservant pushes the spoon at her like a contract as the debutante’s chaperone (or Madame?) enjoys her own chocolate while carefully eying her headstrong young charge (who wears the corsage of her actual love interest between her breasts). In the background another couple arrange an assignation while at back a roue shows off some sort of cheating implement to a masked & veiled person who is mostly hidden behind a column. Roman columns and a piece of an ancient marble (a font? a catafalque? a sarcophagus?) remind us of greater eras in the past, and the inexorable death of empires.

Is this interpretation right? Who can say. The pictorial puzzle has no clear answer that I am aware of, but the puzzle of it invites us to turn it over and over in our heads. Probably the Longhi expert at the Saint Louis Museum would say “oh that wire device is actually a clotheshanger and the model’s white slipper and gown indicate that she is figure beyond reproach.” Yet once we start asking questions, the painting feels anything but innocent, even if we can never know the specifics. The sense of exciting secrets just beyond our apprehension is Longhi’s greatest gift. It has endowed this perfectly chaste picture of a girl drinking cocoa with all sorts of shadowy insinuations. Longhi’s brush did not just tickle a subdued (yet strangely sensual) palette of pinks, browns, and grays, it also tickles our imagination…and that turns out to be naughtier than any actual Carnival naughtiness.

Back in the day, my grandfather was in Vietnam.. Although he lived in Saigon, he worked closely with the Hmong, the people of the forested mountains which run up the country like a green spine. Sometimes he would rhapsodize about the otherworldly beauty of these tropical cloud forests where he saw sights that seemed to come from times long gone. Beyond the bronze age settlements and floating villages of the Hmong Grandpa said he saw jewel-like orchids and mysterious plants there which were wholly unknown. He also said he witnessed amazing birds, insects, and reptiles and heard rumors of strange animals that seemed to belong in myths (maybe like the saola, which is real (barely)…or maybe like the baku, which is not).

All of which brings us to contemporary news! Back in 2019, a group of American and Vietnamese biologists were studying Vietnam’s northern Ha Giang province (which borders south China) when they found a bizarre snake. The snake did not have bright-light photoreceptors in its eyes and it had strange scales like smooth river pebbles arranged in odd patterns The snake was fossorial–a burrower like the amphibian caecilians. Most strangely of all it had iridescent scales but the colorful opal iridescence was atop dark scales of indigo, lavender, brown, and gray. The snake was unknown to science and it has just been announced as an entirely new species–Achalinus zugorum. It is a member of the genus of snakes called Achalinus, the odd scaled snakes, a poorly understood genus which previously only had 13 known species.

Snakes of the Achalinus genus do not have overlapping scales, instead their scales spread out (perhaps to facilitate a life spent hunting beneath the leaf litter and the forest duff). They seem to be a basal lineage which branched from the evolutionary tree of snakes before the ancestors of other snakes did. Not only their appearance. but also their behavior is very different from that of other snakes. Unfortunately, because of their burrowing lifestyle, the odd-scaled snakes hold tight to their mysteries. A Vietnamese herpetologist who was describing the new species said that during decades of collecting snakes in Vietnam’s snake-filled jungles he has only captured half a dozen Achalinus snakes.

The discovery highlights how much we do not know about creatures and ecosystems which are disappearing quickly. Fortunately, researchers at the Smithsonian sequenced the DNA for Achalinus zugorum before returning the single specimen to Vietnam. We may know nothing about this carnival glass serpent from the underworld, but we also know everything about it (if we ever learn to truly read what we have written down). It excites me to imagine these snakes and other unknown species pursuing their secret and unintelligible lives among the orchid roots, and myceli of unknown fungi in these forests. It makes me anxious though, too. How long will this cryptic & beautiful hidden world even exist before it is all swept away?

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Here is one of the world’s rarest and strangest fish, the golden cave catfish (Clarias cavernicola) which can be found only one place on Earth, the Algamas/Dragonsbreath cave in the Namib Desert.  This incredible cavern is 100 meters (300 feet) beneath the desert and it holds the world’s largest known underground lake (discounting all subglacial lakes—which can be huge).  Above ground is an arid desert wasteland, but in cave is a huge lake where unfathomed waters may descend another 100 meters into the Earth.  Since only a narrow chasm opens to the sky, the lake has a very limited ecosystem built around whatever falls into this chasm (which was only discovered by science in 1986).  These blind ascetic catfish dwell on such scraps and on the white shrimp and strange aquatic worms which live in the water beneath the desert.  Though they have lost their eyes, their other senses have become extremely acute in order to find every bug or speck of nutrient which falls into the hidden lake.  Additionally, these small (16 cm/6 inch) fish have a limited ability to sip air–so that they can better survive the still and anaerobic depths of their hidden lake. The entire species may only consist of a few hundred (or thousand) individuals.

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One of the Aspredinidae (banjo catfish) species, Bunocephalus amaurus, from Guyana

Banjo catfish are a family (Aspredinidae) of tiny South American catfish which live in the major tropical river systems of the continent.  Most species of banjo catfish have round flat heads and long skinny tails—hence their distinctive name.  Although various sorts of banjo catfish live in many different river habitats (from quick flowing channels, to murky stagnant backwaters, to brackish tidal basins) they generally utilize the same strategy of keeping still and allowing their camouflage to protect them.  Although like all catfish, they lack scales, the Aspredinidae make up for this absence with rows of horny keratin tubercles which break up their profile and leave them well disguised.  Additionally they can shed their skins! As omnivores they hunt tiny invertebrates as well as feeding on whatever they can scavenge.  Members of the Amaralia genera of Banjo catfish are especially fond of the eggs of other species of catfish, which they actively seek out and vacuum up.

Another species of Banjo catfish (Bunocephalus coracoideus)

Perhaps because they are so partial to eating the eggs of other catfish, some banjo catfish have evolved special strategies to protect their own eggs.  Female catfish in the subfamily Aspredininae wait until their eggs are fertilized and then attach the developing eggs to their belly.  Three species of Aspredininae develop specialized fleshy stalks called cotylephores specifically for the purpose of exchanging nutrients and oxygen between the mother and the eggs.

More banjo catfish (Amaralia hypsiura)

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