If you found out your favorite snorkeling spot was home to 5-foot-long venomous snakes, you’d probably scope out safer waters somewhere far, far away—but a dauntless group of grandmothers did just the opposite.
While studying the small, harmless turtle-headed sea snake in New Caledonia’s Baie des Citrons, two researchers sighted several greater sea snakes (Hydrophis major). The much larger, potentially lethal species proved elusive, and the scientists saw only about 30 of them over three years.
Then, in 2017, seven local grandmothers in their sixties and seventies had an idea. According to a press release, the self-styled “Fantastic Grandmothers” suggested to the researchers—Claire Goiran of the University of New Caledonia and Rick Shine of Macquarie University—that they observe and photograph the greater sea snakes on their regular snorkeling excursions.
Monique Mazière and Sea Snake 79, nicknamed "Déborah."
Claire Goiran/University of New Caledonia
“As soon as the grandmothers set to work, we realized that we had massively underestimated the abundance of greater sea snakes in the bay,” Goiran said in a press release.
Because of noticeable differences in their patterns, it’s easy to tell greater sea snakes apart in photographs. Not only did the women identify more than 249 greater sea snakes in the bay, they also helped shed light on their breeding habits and offspring. Shine told CNN that the women are a “powerful example” of how members of the broader public can enrich scientific discoveries.
Claire Goiran/University of New Caledonia
“The incredible energy of the grandmothers and their intimate familiarity with ‘my’ study area have transformed our understanding of the abundance and ecology of marine snakes in this system,” Goiran said. “It’s a great pleasure and privilege to work with them.” The scientists published their findings in the journal Ecosphere.
The Fantastic Grandmothers, from left to right: Geneviève Briançon, Aline Guémas, Monique Zannier, Monique Mazière, Sylvie Hébert, Cathy Le Bouteiller and Marilyn Sarocchi.
Fortunately, the Fantastic Grandmothers swam away from the study unscathed. In fact, there’s never been a recorded incident of a greater sea snake biting someone in the area, which Goiran believes implies a “benevolent disposition.”
The idea of a warm-hearted, cold-blooded venomous reptile seems strange, but perhaps not as weird as these really weird snakes.
Polar bears are becoming a common sight near the village of Ryrkaypiy in northeastern Russia. As CNN reports, nearly 60 bears were spotted looking for food in the area, and experts say climate change is to blame.
Normally around this time of year, Arctic sea ice is thick enough for polar bears to use it as a platform for hunting seals. Temperatures have been warmer than average this year, and without the ice to support them, hungry polar bears are being pushed south into human-occupied territories on land.
According to a statement released by World Wildlife Fund Russia, the bears gathering in Ryrkaypiy are thin-looking and include cubs and adults of various ages. So far, they've been subsisting on walrus carcasses that have been lain on the village's shore since autumn.
No incidents between bears and villagers have been reported yet, but the 500 residents are on guard. Volunteers are now patrolling the town limits and school buses have started picking up children who would normally walk to class.
Prior to this decade, it was unusual to see more than three or five polar bears near Ryrkaypiy at a time. But as climate change drives global warming and melts Arctic sea ice, seeing large groups of polar bears at lower latitudes is no longer an anomaly. Earlier this year, Novaya Zemlya, Russia, declared a state of emergency after more than 50 bears invaded the region. As sea ice becomes more scarce, the circumstances forcing hungry polar bears to share space with people will only get worse.
Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?
That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.
Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.
And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.
There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”
“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”
Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.
“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.
As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.
Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.
“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.
With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.
According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.
Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.
Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”