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King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah)

King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah)

Exciting celebrity news for Central Florida today! A king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) has decided to forgo its native range—the forests in India and Southeast Asia–and pay a visit to Orlando, Florida.  The king cobra is the world’s longest venomous celebrity with a length of up to 5.6 meter (18.5 feet) (although the one “visiting” Florida is a mere 2.2 meters (8 feet) long).  Unlike many other celebrities, king cobras are known for intelligence, sensitivity, and potent neurotoxic venom.  They (king cobras) also have the ability to rear up the anterior 1/3 of their body, extend their hood and growl loudly. The creature escaped decided to visit Orlando when a tree limb dislodged by a storm crashed open its terrarium.

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King cobras are known for hunting smaller snakes and large rodents.  A ten man team is desperately trying to capture the celebrity before it bites anyone or escapes into the wider ecosystem (like Florida’s famous albeit disreputable pythons).

Hold on…my editor is frantically mouthing that King Cobras are not part of America’s celebrity culture—apparently they are only revered in Hindu and Hinayana Buddhist societies and Christians deplore them (and all other snakes) as taboo. King cobras have never been featured on “American Idol” or “Dancing with the Stars” (although I think it would really spice up those extremely formulaic shows).

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It is important to distinguish between celebrities and dangerous poisonous snakes, I have failed to do that here and I am exceedingly sorry. Please be sure to make this distinction in your own life (except when feeding rats to Sean Penn).

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A Colugo photographed in mid-glide

In the vanishing rainforests of Southeast Asia there lives a vanishing order of mammals named the Dermoptera.  The entire Demoptera order consists of only two species (for contrast, all 3000 plus different species of catfish are in a single order of fish–the Siluriformes).  The arboreal gliding Dermoptera are more commonly called Colugos.  Measuring 35 to 40 centimeters (14 to 16 in) in length and 1 to 2 kilograms (2.2 to 4.4 lb), Colugos are the size of a very small cat.  They are the most accomplished gliders among all of the mammals and they have been known to glide as far as 70 meters (230 feet) between tall rainforest trees. Both species of Colugos are complete herbivores.  They live on fruit, flowers, nuts, and shoots which they digest with highly effective stomachs and extremely long intestines.  Although colugos have digestive organs well-suited to their lives in the trees, they are unexpectedly terrible climbers.  Without opposable thumbs or powerful muscles they must awkwardly “hop” up trees while clinging desperately to the bark with sharp little claws.  Fortunately their proficiency at gliding means they can sail laterally from tree to tree without losing too much altitude.  It should be mentioned that colugos are sometimes called “flying lemurs” though they are not lemurs and can not truly fly.

Cynocephalus variegatus (© 2006 Jwee)

Very little is known about Colugos (if you really want to make a crazy nature documentary, here’s your chance). They are shy, nocturnal loners who live in the tops of huge trees.  Colugos are hunted by eagles, owls, and humans, but they adapt well to different habitats and can live in primary and secondary forests (as well as in human created monocultures such as coconut and rubber plantations). During the day they shelter in holes or cling beneath branches.  The only major exceptions to their largely solitary lives occur among nursing mothers who care for young colugos for 2 to 3 years—a remarkably long time for a small animal. Although colugos are placental mammals, they have strangely marsupial habits.  Babies are born in an undeveloped form and cling to their mother’s belly for six months (even as she glides between trees!).  Mother colugos can shelter their infants by folding their flying membranes around the little ones in a warm snuggie-like pouch.

Colugo (Cynocepahlus variegatus) and baby on a Mango Tree (Photo: Gerardo Angelo)

The lengthy period during which Colugos are dependant on their mother becomes more comprehensible when their family relationships with other mammals are untangled. Colugos are closely related to tree shrews, but, looking at them more carefully something seems oddly familiar.  That is because there is one other mammalian order which they are even more closely related to then the tree shrews—the primates.  According to molecular biologists, they are the most closely related to us of all other orders of living things.

Musa acuminata flower

Musa acuminata is a species of herbaceous plant from Southeast Asia.  Actually it is a very remarkable herbaceous plant because (along with certain other members of the Musa genus), it is the largest herbaceous plant living today.  They are so large that some people call them trees—although they are not properly trees.  The plant’s aspect is disturbing—almost like something out of a horror movie.  A giant pseudostem sprouts rapidly from a fleshy underground corm embedded within the jungle earth. This pseudostem is a towering appendage made up of layer after layer of horny leaf sheaths. Giant leafs grow out from the top of it—some of them as long as a man.

Diagram of Musa acuminata

At the very top of the pseudostem sits the elaborate reproductive apparatus of the plant, a grotesque inflorescence made up of alternating rows of flowers and petal-like bracts.  The strange mass droops down from the tree and a wizened inferior ovary dangles at the bottom.  As the female flowers are fertilized they form a hanging cluster of distinctive fingerlike fruits.  These bulbous “fingers” are grouped in tiers and they angle upward giving the whole stem an alien look. The fruit of Musa acuminata is radioactive because it contains a large amount of potassium (including potassium-40).  Botanists have described the fruit as “leathery berries” (although, to my eye, the elongated fruits suggest something other than berries).

Musa acumniata inflorescence

Although the fruits have a stiff waxy covering and contain a great deal of potassium, they are sweet–so jungle animals carry the pods around, eat them, and distribute the seeds (although the plant also produces asexually by suckering off clonal buds).  Some animals are especially drawn to the fruits and scientists speculate about whether Musa acuminate evolved symbiotically with the primates of Southeast Asia.

In fact 10,000 years ago an invasive species of African primate which had somehow made it to Papua began to select varieties of Musa acuminate trees which suited their taste while destroying (or at least not propagating) the other varieties.  Soon the fruit began to change into something which fit the primates’ hands and suited the beings’ color palate.

Musa acuminata was hybridized with other Musa species (particularly Musa balbisiana) in order to create different varieties of fruits. Parthenocarpic varieties of bananas were discovered and the virgin plants were carefully nurtured and cloned. Ten thousand years of selective breeding has produced a big yellow glowing seedless fruit, far different from the little stunted green fruit. Archaeologists believe that the banana might have been the first domesticated fruit (the only other contender is the ancient fig—which did, in fact, evolve alongside African primates).  Today they live throughout the tropics and subtropics.  Banana plants are additionally used to make fiber and as ornamental plants, but their importance as a foodstuff for humankind is difficult to overstate.  Not only are the yellow “Cavendish” fruits eaten in immense quantities, but starchy plantains are consumed with savory meals, and banana wine is the dominant spirit of large swaths of Africa.  Bananas are the most popular fruit in the world and our fourth most abundant crop overall.

Cuban bananas wash ashore along a Dutch island off the North Sea after a shipping mishap

 

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