Thursday, May 1, 2008

Rainbows and Rainbow Serpents

Chocolate box rainbow - an old scenic cliche - from the land of the much, much, much older Rainbow Serpent.The colour spectrum arches over Tyto Wetlands in Ingham, Tropical North Queensland, where I watch birds and other wildlife - including the present-day Rainbow Serpent - most days.

The Rainbow Serpent's shaping of all land and waterways is a foundation stone of much Aboriginal mythology, thus it winds back 50,000 to 60,000 years.

The snake that seems most likely to have inspired the many tales among more than two hundred language groups - most now long lost - is limited in Australia to a thin northeastern area (roughly 1000km x 100km).

Amethyst Pythons also inhabit Papua New Guinea and parts of Indonesia. So there may be clues to the path to Australia by the first Aborigines in the distribution of Morelia amethistina.

But snake fossils are rare because the bones are so fragile. The pythons perhaps had a wider range across northern Australia that has vanished over, say, the last 30,000 years.

Also known as Scrub Python, the snake is now rarely over five metres long. Old reports of 8m snakes seem founded on stretched, sloughed skins. However, a living specimen in the pioneering sugar cane farming days of the 1890s was measured at 7m. Shipped south to Sydney in a barrel, it was reported to have overheated and died.

The animal pictured is about 4m. It appeared 14 times through 2007 in a one-tree island close to a Tyto lookout knoll, swimming out at night and spending between two and six days and nights coiled and largely concealed up in the melaleuca (paperbark). The magnificent colours are often muted by skin condition and angle of light.

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