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Remember Ferrebeekeeper’s erstwhile roommate Jennifer? During the beginning of the pandemic she packed up her New York City life and moved off to Knoxville. With her went her youthful ward, Miloš Cat, a dashing orphaned street-tabby whom Jennifer plucked from the mean streets of East Flatbush. Living in a dinky backwater city sounds like a bit of a mixed bag–with a handful of positive aspects of urban living balanced against a lot of missing things. And there are elements of the country too! One thing I keep hearing about is the sheer mortality of little water snakes in Jennifer’s Knoxville domicile. Apparently Miloš Cat has taken a shine to the native fauna and sucks these poor guys up like spaghetti (you know, if you ate half of spaghetti and left the mutilated remaining portion on Jennifer’s pristine floor or pillow) [Editor’s note: Please DO NOT DO THIS with snakes or spaghetti].

Here is a JPEG of young Miloš, chomping on his own rather snakelike tail (photo credit: Jennifer Buffett)

Anyway, what does the story of a tabby cat eating snakes in the American South have to do with today’s post? A lot it turns out! Back at the dawn of Ferrebeekeeper, we wrote about the influx of predatory Burmese pythons which irresponsible exotic snake owners dumped in the Florida Everglades. The snakes, which grow to unnerving immensity, are apex predators of Southeast Asia (surely one of Earth’s most competitive ecosystems) and they have been wreaking havoc on the ‘glades. Florida winters have not diminished the invasive snake’s numbers and even teams of armed Florida men authorized to hunt the monsters with all of the firepower available from America’s finest gun shops have done little to stop the pythons. Apparently nothing can stand against the mighty serpents.

Or so it seemed…

Floridian biologists wanted to understand more about the pythons’ nesting behaviors so they set up a camouflaged camera to observe the nest of a 55 kilogram (120 pound) laying snake. What the camera revealed was a complete shock (sorry for the clickbait sentence here in paragraph 3). A feisty swamp bobcat showed up and harassed the mama snake on her nest. Later on, when she slithered off to do python errands (eating native wildlife I guess?), the cat returned and ate all the eggs! It was a real shock to the biologists who did not expect the native swamp denizens to stand up to the Burmese python so effectively. They are setting up a new snake camera elsewhere, however, at least a certain furry someone seems to have the python’s number. Biologists will now keep their eyes open to see whether other bobcats are wrecking snake nests and eating python eggs throughout south Florida (and how much of an impact this has on the snakes). Hopefully Miloš will take this lesson to heart too, and stop eating up the native fauna of Tennessee (lest some Appalachia hill snake strike back at the non-native).

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Tonight is the last night of Carnival…tomorrow is Ash Wednesday which begins the ritual austerities of Lent (which means spring is now truly on the way).  I grew up reading eye-popping tales set in Venice during Carnival (or in Medieval France, or New Orleans, or Rio de Janeiro), yet somehow I always miss out on carnival’s over-the-top pageantry and mad frolics.  I blame this on my Methodist upbringing: Protestants conceive of Lent very differently than Catholics! (even fallen Methodists) but maybe I should blame the weird schedule. I am sure there are carnival festivities going on somewhere in Brooklyn right now, but, come on, it is Tuesday night.  I just got home from work: there is no time to put on 50,000 beads and learn a samba routine.

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\Anyway, to capture this strange mixture of temptation, wariness, sin, redemption, and multi-color ultra-spectacle (and as a call-back to yesterday’s rainbow serpent post), I have decided to post pictures of some snake themed carnival floats from around the world/internet.

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The snake is obviously an important carnival animal, and I can see no other interpretation of the reptile other than in its Biblical role as a representative of temptation and sin (which are obviously themselves major components of carnival).  Perhaps the snake’s ribbon morphology is a secondary component (since this is a great shape for floats).  It is worth noting though the the West African religions which syncretized with Christianity to create the vodou faiths of the New World are very snake oriented.  One of the most august Vodou loas is the great fertility/father figure Dumballah, who is represented as a great serene river serpent.  I wonder if  he might be an influence on some of these displays.

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PuppetsUp Parade 2013

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Hopefully these ARE carnival snakes.  As I was looking for them, I kept finding Chinese “Year of the Snake” floats and Saint Patrick’s Day “Get these snakes out of Ireland” snakes (to say nothing of Hindu cobras and Australian snakes of some unknown provenance).  Maybe parade-goers simply love snakes because all parades kind of are snakes at some level.  Or perhaps there is a deeper cultural connection which eludes me on Tuesday night and must be looked into further in snake-themed posts of the future.  In the meantime Happy Shrove Tuesday!  Go eat some colorful cake and start getting ready for a new season!

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Has anyone noticed the rash of giant snake attacks in Indonesia?  These alarming stories of giant snakes  follow a very ancient (and horrifying) narrative pattern: a lone villager or traveler chances across an enormous predatory reptile from 20 to 30 feet in length.  Mayhem ensues.  Usually the human survives and fights off the monster with a machete (or with aid from a torch wielding mob), but sometimes the human vanishes…only to be found being slowly digested inside a reticulated python.

Taken from an individual human perspective, it is hard not to think of the pythons as the insatiable villains of such stories, but the real narrative is more complicated.    Palm oil is made from fruit of the palm oil plant, a tropical generalist. Not only is this oil a lucrative (and delicious) additive to desserts and other processed foodstuffs, it is also extensively used in cosmetics, shampoo, and soaps.  Indonesia has the third largest rainforest in the world, but palm oil growers are destroying these forests at an unprecedented rate. Indonesia’s tropical rainforests are vanishing even more quickly than the rainforests in Brazil or the Congo.  These forests are cut down and replaced with palm oil plantations, enormous monocultures where most traditional rainforest animals cannot live, however rats can and do live there on the oily palm fruit.  The pythons are hunting rats in these plantations because their forests were destroyed.

 

Humankind the great hive organism is swallowing these forests whole (in the form of delicious candy and aromatic toiletries).  The animals which live there are likewise being eradicated. Indeed the most recent giant python to attack a villager who molested it was literally cut into pieces, fried, and devoured by hungry villagers.  It makes one wonder if the Saint George and the Dragon pictures were not so much about humankind surmounting evil as about the tragedy of deforestation in medieval England.

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What with all the excitement and commotion, it is easy to overlook some of life’s simple pleasures…like watching this enormous python slither across a golf course in Zimbali, South Africa. The python apparently lives near (or just plain is) a water hazard, but every once in a while, he takes a constitutional crawl around the course for exercise and to see what is going on. Of course, just like it does not allow text below pictures, or images which expand to be wider than the window, WordPress prohibits video embeds (unless I pay a hundred dollars a year) so you will have to navigate away from this page to Youtube. I pasted the link above.
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I feel like there is surely some sort of larger picture here. The elements seem to go together: a snake in the garden; an apex predator indolently slithering around the golf course; an invasive species invading another creature’s territory…and building an extravagant game there (wait…are both scary creatures native Africans?). However, I cannot quite find the links (snicker) between these elements.

Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis) by bpfischer

Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis) by bpfischer

The day has completely slipped away from me (as is the way of Mondays in January) but–even though I haven’t written a proper blog post–I wanted to share some photos of an extremely fancy tropical tree python with you.  The green tree python (Morelia viridis) is found in southern Indonesia, New Guinea, and the Cape York Peninsula of Australia, all of which sound far preferable to the cold gray pall of Brooklyn.  The snake has a long slender body which measures from 1.5 to 1.8 meters (about 5 to 6 feet) and has a pronounced head with a heavy square nose/muzzle.

 Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis) by Shannon Plummer

Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis) by Shannon Plummer

The species is arborial and is notable for coiling up into a saddle position when sleeping or resting.  Green tree pythons feed mostly on tree-dwelling mammals (which they catch by hanging their necks and heads into an S-shape and imitating vines) and smaller reptiles which live up in the rainforest. As with the green vine snake, the sinuous almost abstract beauty of the green tree python always makes me think of lush tropical forests on far-away continents and its exquisite green/yellow/chartreuse color reminds me of the beauty of nature.

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Apollo and Python (J.M.W. Turner, 1811, oil on canvas)

The giant Burmese pythons invading South Florida are back in the news.  We have examined the disturbing progress of these tropical apex predators in a previous post.  Unfortunately the stiff winter of 2010 was not enough to slow their relentless progress.  It is now reported that the renegade serpents have caused mammal populations throughout the everglades to crash.  This upsetting news article indicates that populations of raccoons, opossums, and white-tailed deer are down by more than 90%.  Researchers couldn’t find any rabbits or foxes at all.  Native, domestic, and invasive birds have also been hit hard by the snakes.  Not only are the pythons excellent predators in land, water, or trees, but mammals and birds have lost their evolved response to giant snakes (the last native boa constrictors went extinct 16 million years ago).

Humankind is ingenuous at killing things when there is an incentive to do so.  Perhaps the fashion industry could revive python skin (in an environmentally sensitive way that did not involve slaughtering endangered snakes overseas).  Or we could take a cue from the sun god Apollo and just go on an infuriated killing rampage. The ancient Greeks admired and venerated snakes in a way which we do not, but one of the main myths about Apollo involves the story of how he killed a giant underworld python and remade the creature’s lair into the locus of sun worship and prophecy in the ancient world.

Apollo Slaying Python (Eugene Delecroix, 1851, ceiling)

Zeus dallied with the goddess Leto who became pregnant with twins.  Vengeful Hera could not directly punish Zeus, but she took out her wrath on Leto by sending a monstrous python to hound the expectant goddess from all terra firma (and from anywhere the sun shone).  Finally Leto found refuge on Delos, a floating island which Zeus covered with clouds. She gave birth to twins: Artemis, (Diana in Roman) the virgin goddess of the hunt; and Apollo, sun god and deity of beauty, prophecy, and enlightened art. Apollo represented the apex of classical beauty and virtue at a time when martial skill and revenge were paramount virtues.  As soon as he grew to manhood he took his divine golden arrows and hunted for the python which had tormented his mother.  He hunted the underworld monster to Delphi where the python lived wrapped around the Omphalos, the navel of the earth.  In single combat he shot an arrow of divine agony into the creature’s throat, causing the snake to die at the center of the world in terrible pain.

The python was sacred, the offspring of mother Earth herself.  Even for an Olympian god such a deicide was a tremendous sin.  Zeus decreed that Apollo must serve eight years of menial service as a slave to atone for killing the Python.  After this period was over, Apollo rededicated the Python’s oracular shrine to himself as the foremost center of augury in the ancient world.  A yearly Greek holiday Septerla was established to commemorate the god’s triumph over the chthonic snake and every four years the Pythian Games were held at Delphi.  The Pthian games were second only to the Olympics in fame and prestige.

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