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The Yellow-lipped Sea Krait (Laticauda colubrina)

The coral reef is a super-competitive ecosystem where every surface hides a hidden mouth, a poison dart, or a camouflaged hunter.  However the reef is also a place rich in resources where it is possible to make a good living.  It is sort of the New York City of ocean habitats.  Some animals have been part of reef-like ecosystems for a tremendously long time, but one of my favorite reef animals, the banded sea snake or yellow-lipped sea krait (Laticauda colubrina) is a latecomer.  Like the coral reef catfish (which descended from freshwater river fish ancestors but evolved into a saltwater coral reef dweller), the krait has put its land-dwelling roots behind it and moved out into the ocean—although it remains an air-breather like all snakes and it must also come ashore to drink freshwater since it has not yet evolved the super kidneys necessary for dealing with saltwater. Yellow-lipped sea kraits are widespread throughout the Indo-Pacific Ocean.  They grow up to 2.2 meters (6 and a half feet long).

Laticauda colubrina

An accomplished hunter, the banded sea snake lives on cuttlefish, squid, fish, fish eggs, and small arthropods which throng the shallow reef.  The krait’s venom is among the most poisonous on earth, but fortunately the creatures have easy going dispositions (and small fangs) and they rarely bite humans.  Their closest relatives among the land snakes are the cobras.


Yellow-lipped sea kraits shed their skin far more often than do land snakes in order to protect themselves from parasites: sometimes they change skins as often as every fortnight.  Kraits are viviparous and do not bear eggs but rather give birth to completely autonomous baby snakes which are born with their parents’ swimming and hunting ability.  The snakes are such gifted swimmers thanks not just too their sinuous bodies but also to laterally compressed tails which they use like paddles to propel themselves through the water. Another feature which the kraits possess to deal with their watery habitat is nostrils which clamp shut
The kraits are extremely beautiful: their bodies are banded with black and pale blue rings.  They have a balck head with a yellow snout. Their beauty gives them a special place in art and literature.  I like to imagine that the yellow-lipped krait was one of the mysterious beautiful “water-snakes” who caused the ancient mariners unconscious epiphany which broke the curse he labored under and marked the climax of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (a profoundly beautiful miniature epic about the importance of treating animals kindly):

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

Banded Sea Snake (Jennifer Belote, acrylic on canvas)

Pink Fairy Armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncates)

There are twenty extant species of armadillos–new world placental mammals covered with armored plates. The smallest of these armored creatures is the Pink Fairy Armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncates) which is only 9-12 centimeters in total length (about 4 or 5 inches).  The diminutive creature weighs slightly more than 100 grams when mature and inhabits the central drylands of Argentina.  It has multiple hard ring-like plates of delicate pink which it can close into a box form for protection (although its first defensive strategy is to dig into the ground).  The animal has tiny eyes and a torpedo-like head for pushing into the sand. The portions of the Pink Fairy Armadillo not covered with plates are covered in dense white fur. Like the golden mole of Namibia, the pink fairy armadillo is a sand swimmer:  the little animal agitates the fine, dry sand with its powerful claws and literally swims through the turbulence with its hard bullet shaped body.  The armadillos are also like the golden mole in that they can lower their metabolism to levels unheard of among other placental mammals.  However armadillos are not closely related to the golden mole—or indeed to any other placental mammals other than fellow Xenarthra (the sloths, armadillos, and anteaters).  South America spent a long portion of geological time as an island and the mammals there had a long time to develop on their own.  It is still not known whether Xenarthrans like the Pink Fairy Armadillo are truly Eutherians or whether they are the descendants of the ancestors of the Eutherians (sorry: the language of cladistics does not lend itself to eloquent explanations and all of the names sound like they come from a far-away planet—for example “Xenarthrans”).

I would like to tell you more about the Pink Fairy Armadillo, but I am unable to do so.  Since it lives underground, the animal is rarely seen in the wild.  It is even more unusual in captivity where it does not long survive the shocks and stresses of zoo living (additionally it seems unable to live on anything other than local invertebrates). This is unfortunate as it is believed that the Pink Fairy Armadillo is struggling in the wild.  It is presumed to be declining in numbers–a victim to habitat loss from human activity.  I used wiggle words like “believed” and “presumed” because nobody really has any idea about the actual populations of Pink Fairy Armadillos.

In the absence of real information here is a little gallery of Pink Fairy Armadillo artwork.  Enjoy these pictures, it is profoundly unlikely you will ever see a real Pink Fairy Armadillo in the real world (which is sad because I find them curiously endearing). I particularly like the cartoon of the Pink Fairy Armadillo dreaming of transcendence into a mythical fairy being.

Drawing by Frohickey

Digital Artwork by Loba Feroz

Art by Guertelmaus

Sculpture by Michelle de Bruin

Cartoon by Blade Zulah

Grant's Golden Mole (illustration from Michigan Science Art)

Yesterday I spent some time describing the Namib Desert (as well as giving a brief overview of the entire nation of Namibia).  I did this not just because Namibia strikes me as one of the most striking landscapes on earth, but because the harsh habitat is home to a profoundly strange mammal, Grant’s Golden Mole (Eremitalpa granti), a solitary, nocturnal predator of the Nagib Desert.  Grant’s golden mole lives primarily in the Namib Desert but ranges as far north as Angola and as far south as the arid dunes of South Africa.

The golden moles are already strange animals.  The name “mole” is a misnomer: golden moles are not closely related to the true moles (which are insectivores) or to the marsupial moles of Australia.  Their taxonomical classification is presently unclear but they seem to be most closely related the tenrecs, a group of insect eating primitive placental mammals.  Tenrecs and golden moles both have unusual dentition (a critical feature to the taxonomist) and possess cloacas like birds.  It has been speculated that tenrecs and golden moles are closely related to the first placental mammals, but this may be a mistake. It is also possible that the tenrecs resemble the ancestral placental mammal of long ago whereas golden moles have evolved features which uniquely suit their desert environments.

Van Zyl's Golden Mole (Cryptochloris zyli) photo from "Professor Paul's Guide to Mammals"

Grant’s golden mole is a particular anomaly since it is so profoundly suited for desert living (which may have to do with the great age of the Namib Desert).  Grant’s golden mole does not make permanent burrows but literally swims through the sand. The creature has powerful claws for digging which have almost some to resemble “sand flippers”.  It can move swiftly underground and detect its prey (termites, scorpions, and lizards) through its profoundly acute sense of touch.  Its eyes have become vestigial and are covered with both skin and fur.  Because it burrows through fine particles of sand, its coat is incredibly fine and dense, its nose is a leathery wedge, and its ears have shrunk to tiny, tiny openings.

Grant's Golden Mole

Grant’s golden mole does not build burrows so it is not known how or where it raises its young.  Because water is so scarce in the Namib Desert, the golden mole does not drink: its kidneys are hyper efficient.  It also does not regulate its temperature in the manner of other mammals and it is capable of dropping into a suspended state during the days (when it digs deep down into the oxygen poor sand).  Grant’s golden mole requires large swaths of sandy desert for hunting.  It lives only on the shifting dunes.  With such a lifestyle you would think that it has escaped trouble from humankind, but you would be wrong.  The giant sand mines of Namibia are eating into its habitat and it is preyed on by feral cats.  In so far as we know anything about its numbers, we believe it is threatened.  Even in one of the most inhospitable places, humans are making inroads.

Grant's Golden Mole after a Successful Hunt (Minden Pictures)

Some things are easy to write about.  For example, the world’s largest catfish was an effortless topic—what a great fish!  There is plenty of information about the animal and its giant size makes it instantly fun and interesting (although the specie’s widespread decline does bring a sense of mounting unease).  For a wide variety of reasons, other subjects are considerably more difficult to address.  Sometimes the information is unavailable or the data is lurid and upsetting.  In a poignant incongruity, one of these troubling topics happens to be the world’s smallest catfish, the candiru, which hails from the Amazon basin of Brazil.

Vandellia cirrhosa

The term itself “candiru” can mean either the species Vandellia cirrhosa, or it can refer to several genera of similar small catfishes. There is apparently even a genus “Candiru”.  To put it bluntly the candiru is a vampire catfish.  It enters the gills of larger fishes and sucks their blood–well actually, it doesn’t suck the blood as such. To quote “fishbase” an online fish resource, “[The candiru] bites mostly at the ventral or dorsal aorta arteries, and the blood is pumped into its gut by the host’s blood pressure. It does not need any special sucking or pumping mechanism to quickly engorge itself with blood, but simply uses its needle-like teeth to make an incision in an artery.”  The candiru is small.  Vandellia cirrhosa rarely exceeds lengths of 1-2.5 in (2.5-6 cm) with a width of 3.5 mm (although much larger specimens are known).

The junction of the Amazon River and the Rio Negro, (near Manaus, Brazil) is the principal haunting ground of the candiru.  The catfish hides in the sand or mud.  When prey swims by—either in the day or at night—the candiru uses its tremendous sense of smell and powerful eyesight to hone in on the other fish’s gills for a blood meal.  The Candiru has backwards pointing spines behind its gill covers.  It can lock itself into a victim’s flesh with these razor sharp rays.

The…um…Lovely Beach at Manaus, Brazil

The candiru is not picky about its blood source and this has made it one of the most feared fish in the Amazon.  It has been known to enter swimming humans through various orifices or through open wounds.  Lurid ethnological reports from as far back as the 19th century detail this fish’s intimate depredations of human hosts.

Argh! Drop those in bleach and go wash your hands with holy water!

It is entirely whimsical—even childish—to speculate about whether the catfish is averse to garlic, possesses immortality, has become a hero to preteen girls, speaks with a strong Baltic accent, etc.

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