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Today we feature one of Australia’s best-known and best-dressed snakes, the red-bellied black snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus).  This exceedingly handsome reptile lives all along the eastern coast of the island continent and grows to lengths of 1.5 to 2 meters (5.5 to 6.5 feet).   It is a generalist predator which eats small mammals, reptiles (including fellow red-bellied black snakes) arthropods, and above all, frogs.  This fetching snake is a member of the elapidae family—a group of toxic snakes which includes such famous genera as coral snakes, cobras, and kraits.

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The red-bellied snake is indeed venomous: its venom is a complex mixture of neurotoxins, myotoxins, and coagulants.  However, when the snakes bites people (which they are loath to do) they rarely inject a lethal dose of venom.  When threatened they try to hide in the urban woodlands, billabongs, or scrublands where they live.  If backed into a corner they will make a threat display by extending their cobra-like hood and hissing.  Australians, who live with many horrifying venomous snakes, seem to regard red-bellied black snakes as comparatively benign although I certainly wouldn’t want one to bite me!).

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Snakes of this species are ovoviviparous—they hold their eggs inside their body until the young hatch.  This is no mean feat, since mother snakes can give birth to litters of up to 40 little baby snakes!

Red-bellied black snake, Lota.

Atheris hispida

Atheris hispida

We’ll begin our week of serpents with a strange and magnificent-looking viper from the jungles and rainforests of Central Africa. Atheris hispida is also known as the rough-scaled bush viper or the spiny bush viper because of its most unusual physical characteristic—the pointed curving scales which give it a distinctive bristling “punk-rock” appearance.  Atheris hispida is a member of the viper family and is thus related to rattlesnakes, adders, as well as numerous tropical vipers in Asia.  The species is a strong climber and is often found basking on trees, flowers, or vines. They are among the smallest vipers: the male measures only 73 cm in length (and is longer than the female).  Mostly nocturnal, they hunt the trees and rainforest brush for tree-frogs and lizards.

Atheris hispida

Atheris hispida

As far as I can tell, there are no effective anti-venoms for the furtive snakes (which range from the Congo west into Kenya and down into Uganda) so despite their hairy appearance and big anime eyes you may not want to pet them!

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The Giant Ground Pangolin of Africa (Manis gigantea)

The pangolin is one of the most unusual and fascinating mammals of Africa and Asia.  The magnificent creatures have unique strengths and gifts, but because of unhappy superstition (and gustatory whim) they are facing an uncertain future.

A climbing tree pangolin

Despite a superficial resemblance to anteaters and armadillos, pangolins are most closely related to the carnivora family (cats, dogs, weasels, seals, and so forth).  The relationship is not unduly close: pangolins make up their own order of which there is one extant family (Manidae) and one genus (Manis). There are eight species of pangolins, each of which is sheathed in a virtually impregnable suit of keratin scales which act as armor.  All pangolins can roll into pinecone-like balls leaving only the razor sharp edges of their scales to confront predators. Not only does the pangolin possess armor, every adult has formidable claws with which to burrow into termite mounds and root insects out of bark (or to utilize as a defensive weapon) as well as a gland capable of spraying a foul acid onto would-be predators.  Additionally, while they may lack the uniquely acute mental equipment of the gnome-like echidna, pangolins are considered quite clever.  They are gifted at avoiding traps and seem to evince real creativity in seeking out and consuming bugs, particularly ants and termites, which compromise a large portion of their diets. Many pangolins are adept climbers, capable of taking to the trees both to hunt and to escape danger. Tree pangolins even have prehensile tails with which they can dangle from branches. Other pangolins are great burrowers. In fact  in Chinese myth they travel everywhere in a great underground network and their Cantonese name “Chun-shua-cap” means the creature that bores through the mountain.

A lion ineffectively tries to eat a balled-up pangolin (photo by Mark Sheridan-Johnson)

Alas, Chinese legends are not all so kind to chun-shua-cap. Although pangolins are gifted with impregnable armor, mighty claws, keen intelligence, skunk-like acid spray, dexterity, as well as great digging, swimming, and hiding skills, they have a relentless enemy more implacable than any lion or plague. South China’s burgeoning middle class hungers for them with insatiable rapacity. Ancient custom dictates that ingesting their scales somehow magically aids nursing mothers (which, aside from the placebo effect, is a complete fallacy). Additionally pangolins are a prestige food for the newly moneyed millions who do not know what to do with wealth and, like the Very Reverend William Buckland, desire to consume everything that lives. China has eaten its own pangolins and is quickly driving the remaining pangolins of South East Asia, Indonesia, and South Asia to extinction. Additionally, as Africa’s troubled nations become vassals to Chinese cash and commodities-grubbing (and as Africa’s tin-pot dictators abase themselves before China’s moral equivocation) the pangolin trade is starting to gobble-up Africa’s pangolins, which were already facing pressure from the bush-meat trade and deforestation. Pangolins reproduce slowly.  Because of their diet and lifestyle they can’t be farmed. If China’s ever-growing demand for them is not curbed they will vanish from Earth forever.

A smuggled pangolin rescued by police

Chinese police, customs officers, and wildlife officials (and their counterparts in neighboring nations) have begun to strike back at the illegal trade in pangolins and other endangered species.  But as long as Chinese high officialdom turns a (very) blind eye on consumption, the problem will linger.  Come on China! You are always clamoring to be regarded as a truly great world power.  I will acknowledge you as such as soon as you rescue the world’s pangolins (and maybe the rhinos, bears, elephants, and tigers while you are at it). Everyone has these wacky superstitions which get in the way of real greatness (just look at America’s checkered history) but saving the pangolins should be possible for a nation whose government possesses such absolute authority. Or will China’s rise merely present a list of needless extinctions and tacky plastic cities as its heritage to posterity?

A baby pangolin sheltering with its mother

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