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Halloween this year featured scary clowns…but I just realized that I forgot to include one of the best posts on this subject before October ended.  This is Balistoides conspicillum, the clown triggerfish, one of the most beloved of all aquarium fishes because of its wild white spots and bright orange greasepaint mouth (along with sundry yellow/white stipples, squiggles, stripes and some translucent cornflower fins).  I promised I would showcase some Tetraodontiformes (my favorite order of fish), and there could hardly be a showier fish in the ocean!


Don’t let this fish’s comic good looks deceive you though:  it is not some oceangoing fop.  Clown triggerfish live on coral reefs throughout the tropical Indo-Pacific (and maybe in the Caribbean part of Atlantic, during these days of irresponsible hobbyists) and the adult fish prefer a solitary life at the edge of the reef where it drops off into the endless blue of the ocean.  The top of deep underwater cliffs is their favorite home, presumably so they can stare forbodingly into the depths like a melancholic hero from Romantic art. This means that clown triggerfish must cope with all of the denizens of the reef…and with pelagic outsiders who live by different standards than those of the bustling underwater “cities”.

Clown triggerfish stand up to other fish, even much larger ones, with an arsenal that includes strong muscles, nimble maneuverability, cleverness (they are reputed to be some of the smartest fish in the ocean), a locking “trigger” bone to make them hard to pry out of caves, and, oh yeah, a terrifying mouth filled with sharp rock-like teeth.  Their diet of tunicates, spiny sea urchins, large arthropods (crabs and lobsters), and bivalve mollusks such as clams necessitates formidably strong jaw muscles.  Apparently clown triggerfish can just bite right through lobster armor and clamshells. True to their common name, these fish sometimes become prankish with their owners and, at feeding time, they have been known to grunt comically and squirt water onto their favorite humans.   If they like a person they can be fed by hand or even caressed, but it is a risky venture since, obviously,  they can use their mouths for more than biting through clams.


Adult clown triggerfish grow to be half a meter in size and they can live for up to 20 years in captivity.  When they spawn, the triggerfish dig a shallow nest in the coral rubble and lay eggs in it.  Together the couple fiercely guards the eggs until the babies hatch, then all parties go their own ways.  Juvenile clown triggerfish have a diamond shape and are completely covered in white spots (their other markings appear as they mature).



Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis)

Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis)

I have been putting it off forever, but Halloween is rolling in and we need the A-list material… let’s talk about the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis).  Not only do black mambas have the scariest & sexiest name in herpetology (and maybe beyond), they fully live up to their fearsome reputation.  Black mambas are among the fastest snakes in the world—indeed they may be the fastest (it is apparently difficult to make deadly poison serpents run on a treadmill).  Their venom is a horrifying cocktail of neurotoxins including an exceedingly effective dendrotoxin which attacks the ion channels which allow nerve cells to communicate with muscles.


Black mambas are diurnal ambush hunters.  They inhabit a giant swath of sub-Saharal Africa from the northern Sahel down to Namibia and Mozambique in the south (although they are absent from certain deserts and rainforests within this vast territory). The snakes live on small intelligent mammals like hyraxes and bushbabies…but surely they must eat other creatures as well.  In turn mambas are preyed on by the fearless yellow mongooses, snake eagles, and cape file snakes–which are seemingly immune to the poison.  Africa has some really intense inhabitants.  It goes without saying that people kill them too, out of dread.

Speaking of which, according to lore, black mambas are highly aggressive and attack with no provocation, but this does not seem to be borne out by evidence.  Knowledgeable herpetologists assert that black mambas are wisely afraid of humans (we are, after all, the most terrifying invasive aggressive species from Africa) and they try to flee us when possible.  Still if you happen upon one of these snakes it might be wise to avoid it rather than trying to impress it into submission with a list of our atrocities. They can strike with extreme speed and sometimes bite multiple times (which is bad news considering that a person bitten even once can keel over in less than 45 minutes and nearly all untreated bites are fatal).

This albino black mamba is not clarifying anything, but is strangely endearing

This albino black mamba is not clarifying anything, but is strangely endearing

In gentler moments mambas mate once a year in early spring.  Females lay clutches of 6-17 eggs which hatch in about ninety days. Baby black mambas emerge from their eggs with fully functioning venom glands, so don’t pick up the baby snakes no matter how cute they are (?).

[contemplates photo, passes out]

[contemplates photo, passes out]

Black mambas are not black! They are diurnal hunters and are thus the nondescript color of dust or contemporary office furniture–the better to blend in to scrublands, forests, and grasslands which they inhabit.  Their name comes from the insides of their mouths which are indeed as black as Goya’s nightmares. I knew a girl in junior high school who said “Oh mamba!” when she was impressed, which I thought was really endearing.  The word is apparently Nguni in origin (although the snake is more broadly known than the tongue it is named in).  Mambas are elipsids–close relatives of cobras.  The other species of mamba are arborial, but black mambas stay closer to the ground.  Black mambas seem to have faintly mocking smiles–so at least they are enjoying themselves [citation needed].

ssssmile!  You only live oncce.

ssssmile! You only live oncce.

Serpent d'Océan  (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Here is an amazing giant sea serpent sculpture by the Franco-Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping. The 130 meter long artwork is made of aluminum and is appropriately titled Serpent d’Océan (“Sea Serpent”). The sculptor completed the piece in 2012 for the Loire “Estuaire” festival. He erected the monumental work at the mouth of the Loire River where the great waterway empties into the Atlantic Ocean–just west of the port city of Nantes.

Serpent d'Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

The head of Serpent d’Océan lies just above the high tide mark and its tail is just below the low tide boundary. Thus, every day the serpent goes from being mostly submerged to mostly on land. At low tide, art enthusiasts can walk around the piece and see it close up like a museum specimen. At high tide it takes on a mythical supernatural character as it appears to writhe through the waves.

Serpent d'Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

The artist Huang Yong Ping designed the serpent to straddle all sorts of boundaries. It is neither at sea nor properly on land. Likewise it lies where river meets ocean and the ecosystem is neither fully marine nor riverine. The serpent is a metal sculpture designed to look like a living skeleton of a mythical creature. The sculptor himself self-identifies as neither entirely Chinese nor French: he used myths from both cultures to inform his sculpture. Indeed the serpent takes on even more facets when considered in the light of world trade (where monsters–real and imagined–abound). Additionally, as a youth, Huang studied with the French master of artistic ambiguity Marcel Duchamp. Most of Huang’s artworks blur the lines between art and non-art (though, like Duchamp, he tries to stick to the former category).

Serpent d'Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

Serpent d’Océan (Huang Yong Ping, 2012, aluminum sculpture)

The artist has expressed his hope that, as the sculpture ages, various tidal plants and animals will begin to colonize it and live within—or atop–the metal creation. As seabirds build their nests there and living amphibious beasts hide and feed within the snake, it will stretch across even more boundaries.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

January 2023