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Claire Goran / University of New Caledonia

Scientists report a normally-banded species of sea snake is evolving darker skin to get rid of manmade pollutants. Some insects, like the peppered moth, evolved "urban melanism" for better camouflage in polluted environments, but this is the first time something similar has been seen in a marine animal. It also suggests at least one species of sea snake may be adapting to pollution, though just how well it's working remains to be seen.

What they did: The scientists examined populations of turtle-headed sea snakes and museum specimens throughout Southeast Asia and Australia, and found a clear association between dark coloration and urban pollution or military activity. They found that the all-dark snakes were twice as likely to shed their skin, and that those sheds had more contaminants. Finally, they looked at another kind of sea snake called banded sea kraits, and found that even on a single snake, the dark stripes had more pollutants than light stripes.

A long-standing mystery: "We've known for a while some groups of these snakes were jet black, but we didn't know why," Richard Shine of the University of Sydney, Australia tells Axios. He's been studying sea snakes for 20 years. "We looked at habitat, mating systems — we even dragged different colored ropes behind a boat to see which they preferred."

It stayed a mystery until Shine's collaborator Claire Goran, a marine biologist at the University of New Caledonia, was reading a paper that found melanin helped dark-colored pigeons shed more toxins through their feathers than light-colored pigeons. It was her idea to look at the levels of pollutants in snake skin.

A small challenge: The researchers still need to determine whether dark-skinned snakes survive better in polluted water than striped snakes. Unfortunately, says Shine, that's easier said than done. They're a long-lived species. "Some of the first snakes I marked are still swimming," he tells Axios.

Go deeper

Storms pummel flood-hit Pacific Northwest as border river overflows

An image of the water-logged Sumas Prairie area taken last Friday. Photo: B.C. Ministry of Transportation/Twitter.

The latest ferocious storm system to hit the Pacific Northwest triggered fresh evacuation orders and at least one mudslide in flood-ravaged British Columbia, Canada, late Sunday.

Threat level: Flood sirens sounded in Washington state as the Nooksack River overflowed. Henry Braun, mayor of Abbotsford, B.C., told reporters the water flow was headed toward the Canadian border city later Sunday. "There's nothing to stop it," he said.

Updated 5 hours ago - Health

First North American Omicron cases identified in Canada

COVID-19 testing personnel at Toronto Pearson International Airport in September. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The first two cases of the new Omicron variant have been detected in North America, the Canadian government announced Sunday evening.

Driving the news: The World Health Organization has named Omicron a "variant of concern," but cautioned earlier on Sunday that it is not yet clear whether it's more transmissible than other strains of COVID-19.

Former Defense Secretary Esper sues Pentagon over book

Former President Trump and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the White House in 2020. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper filed a lawsuit Sunday against the Defense Department, accusing the Pentagon of "censoring" his First Amendment rights by redacting aspects of his upcoming book on the Trump administration.

The big picture: Esper, who served as defense secretary from July 2019 until he was fired by then-President Trump in November last year, alleges in the suit that "significant text" is "being improperly withheld from publication" of the manuscript "under the guise of classification."