The Flower Pot snake that eats termites (we need them).
There was a tiny dead creature on the concrete pad outside the back door one morning. At first it looked just like an earthworm. But it wasn’t a worm. It was a little smoother and more sparkly. If you bent down and looked really carefully, it had tiny, tiny scales. So it was a reptile. Probably. But what sort? It had no eyes, and it was difficult to tell which end was the head, and which was the tail. It certainly wasn’t something you see every day in Gentilly. Even if you’re really into backyard lizards and toads and such, this was something special, something strange. So strange that it didn’t show up in the yellowing 1975 second edition of Peterson’s Field Guide to Reptiles on the bookshelf, which is the bible of all things with forked tongues, claws and scales. Peterson’s listed something called a Texas Blind Snake, that more or less fit the bill, but it didn’t live any nearer to New Orleans than Dallas Cowboys football fans.nola.com
If you cant find it in a book then on to social media.
At times like these, one naturally turns immediately to social media, posting close-up photos of the mysterious 5-inch creature, proposing possible identities, and soliciting opinions from one’s digital hive of Facebook friends and followers. Including, it turns out, certain jazz musicians. Louis Prima Jr. immediately replied via Facebook. The trumpeter was certain that one of the members of his band could explain everything about the mystery snake. This dude could explain any creepy-crawly thing. Prima is the son of the late, legendary French Quarter-born fireball Louis Prima, who was a jazz-era superstar. He was the “Old Black Magic” dude, the “I Ain’t Got Nobody Dude,” the ORIGINAL “Just a Gigolo” dude. Though Louis Jr. didn’t set out to follow in his dad’s footsteps, he was eventually bitten by the frontman bug. Back in 2004, he formed a band that performs some of his dad’s songs as well as eclectic covers and original compositions. Louis Prima Sr. would probably be proud of how well the kid channels his shot-out-of-a-cannon energy. But what does this have to do with a tiny snake cadaver in Gentilly?
He plays the trombone but is one who knows a lot.
When driving between gigs, Louis Prima Jr. likes to ride with trombonist Philip Clevenger. Because he’s such an interesting conversationalist. “In the music industry there are so many characters,” Prima said, “and he’s one,” Pop musicians are, of course, known for their eccentricities and excesses, especially while touring. Clevenger is no exception. Often, when the band has stopped to rest and refuel along the highway, Prima said, Clevenger disappears into the woods, camera in hand. When he returns, he shows off photos of the salamanders or turtles he spotted during his travels. He knows all their names and characteristics. Once or twice, Prima said, the band has forgotten Clevenger and driven off without him, having to circle back for the straying trombonist. “Half of me is herpetology and half of me is music,” said Clevenger of his twin passions, “I’m a reptile nut.” So, when Prima saw a social media post from a New Orleans acquaintance seeking to solve a scaly mystery, he knew exactly whom to consult.
Who would know best – and he is not from here!
Clevenger, who hails from the Mojave Desert in California, was the first to positively identify the worm-like serpent as a Brahminy Blindsnake, a strange species which originated in Africa and Asia, but which has spread to America and Australia too. The miniature reptiles, Clevenger explained, are also known as Flowerpot Snakes, because they stow away in the soil around imported tropical plants. One of the wildest things about Brahminy Blindsnakes, Clevenger said, is that they’re parthenogenic. That is, they don’t have to have sex to reproduce. He’s right. According to the Florida Museum Snake ID guide, all Brahminy Blindsnakes are female. All of them. “Therefore,” the website explains, “unfertilized eggs begin cell division without sperm from a male.” “I’ll tell you what,” Clevenger said to a gentleman journalist, “if humans figured that out, you and I would be a little endangered ourselves.”
They are not endangered as they span the globe.
Brahminy Blindsnakes are not endangered. Far from it. Audubon Zoo reptile curator Robert Mendyk said they’re the world’s most widespread snake, and are “really common in the Southern United States.” “These guys seem to have found a niche,” he said. Mendyk said people would probably be surprised at how many Brahminy Blindsnakes are in their yards right now. They’re not well known, he said, because they are fossorial. In other words, “they spend 99.9 percent of their lives underground” and “most people who come across them think they are worms.” “They are absolutely harmless,” Mendyk said. No venom, no sharp teeth. Maybe, he said, they might exude a smelly musk, like a skunk, but that’s it. “Just leave them be,” he advised. “If they’re in the street where they could get squished, just move them over into some leaf litter.” They eat termites and ant larvae, a characteristic that every Crescent Cityite who lives in a wooden house will surely admire. “But it will take a hell of a lot more of them to put a dent in that problem,” Mendyk said. The zoo curator, who comes from Long Island and moved to New Orleans five years ago, said the Brahminy Blindsnakes may have gained a foothold in Florida first, but nobody knows how long they’ve been in Louisiana. Decades, he suspects.
More introduced than invasive.
He doesn’t call them an invasive species, because they don’t seem to be harming anything. He prefers the term “introduced” species. Since they don’t need mates to reproduce, they are “excellent colonizers,” he said. And not just in Gentilly, but all over New Orleans. Prima was especially interested in a Facebook post referring to Brahminy Blindsnakes, because he and his girlfriend had spotted one too, while digging in a planter on their Metairie patio. It looked like a worm, he said, but it slithered like a snake. He shot a video of the encounter.
There is beauty everywhere.
There seems to be a certain poetry in all this. Clevenger, our jazz herpetologist, pointed out that the almost unnoticeable, sightless, subterranean snake proves that “there’s a beauty in everything.” Plus, the little snake that is silently wrapping around the world could be a sort of symbol for the 21st-century connectivity that underlies this whole story. Also, in a port city like New Orleans, which has eternally drawn and welcomed outsiders, the Flowerpot Snake can symbolize all the newcomers who add to the richness of the mix. Culturally speaking, that mix brought forth some beautiful stuff, like, yep, jazz music. The word Brahminy, by the way, seems to refer to the most prestigious members of India’s traditional caste system, though how the term was applied to such a humble creature is anyone’s guess. Blindsnake can also be spelled Blind Snake. How the Flowerpot Snake, found near a journalist’s house in Gentilly, died is unknown. Maybe a crow or some other bird caught it and accidentally dropped it? There does seem to be a slight pinch mark in the middle of her little body. Now she’s preserved in alcohol in one of those cute, round, honey mustard jars.
Fluff story with information on a snake that is hard to find.