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Queen Snakes Are Back, and They’re in New Jersey

Good morning. It’s Tuesday. Today we’ll meet a creature that you might not want to encounter face-to-scaly-face. We’ll also get details on Columbia University’s decision to begin suspending students who remained at the pro-Palestinian encampment after a deadline set by the university.

It’s a slithery, picky eater that craves crayfish — and isn’t much to look at.

“It’s drab and brownish-looking,” Jeff Dragon said. “It’s not going to stand out.”

He was talking about a queen snake.

Dragon, who studies snakes as a research scientist with the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, noticed a specimen last month — the first queen snake known to have been seen in New Jersey since 1977.

The thought of snakes may make you recoil, but queen snakes are not poisonous. They are an endangered species in New York and are listed as critically imperiled by NatureServe, a nonprofit organization that assembles data on species and ecosystems.

Dragon had been on the lookout for queen snakes in South Jersey — he will not say exactly where to keep the area from being overrun with snake hunters — since 2021, when he got a text from a friend’s brother: “I think I have a queen snake in my basement.”

“I was impressed that he took the time to differentiate that it was not a common garter snake or a water snake,” recalled Dragon, who had been out looking for — what else? — other snakes. “For a nonreptile person to find a snake and identify it, that’s impressive.”

He was more impressed when the friend’s brother sent along a photograph. Dragon rushed out of the woods, the better to find even a one-bar cell signal, but by then the man had let the snake go. Dragon went to his house anyway, hoping to come across the snake nearby.

“Failed,” said Dragon, who was puzzled. “They only eat crayfish, and here it was in a basement” with nothing delectable. “Could it have been brought in? ”

Dragon searched the area in the spring of 2022. “Failed again,” he said.

But in August of that year, the man called and said there was a dead female queen snake in the mud room of his house. Dragon theorized that the man’s cat had caught the snake and brought it to the house. He even wondered if the cat had chased down the first snake, only to have it get away and slink to safety in the basement.

Last year came and went with nothing to report. Then, a couple of weeks ago, the friend’s brother called.

“As soon as his name comes on my phone, I go, ‘He’s got one,’” Dragon said. A dead one, it turned out. “It was right in front of his garage door, implying it had been presented as a present by his cat.”

Dragon was convinced: “There is absolutely a population here,” he said.

And not far away, he found a live one. “They like to keep coiled in the shrubs above the water, and right there, bam, as soon as I saw it was coiled, I didn’t hesitate. I grabbed it off the branch and knew immediately this was 100 percent an adult female queen snake.”

He played down the idea that there had been no queen snakes in New Jersey since Jimmy Carter was president and “Star Wars” was playing in theaters for the first time. “They’ve been here all along,” he said. “They’ve just gone undetected.”

“To us, it’s an invasion,” a headline over the weekend said. “To them, it’s a party.”

The headline was about cicadas, but it could just as easily have been about spotted lanternflies. These are the colorful bugs with which experts say that New Yorkers should have an adversarial relationship.

How adversarial? If you see one, kill it.

The lanternflies, originally from Asia, arrived in New York City during the pandemic summer of 2020. They are an invasive species that can damage leafy plants. Jose Ramirez-Garofalo, an ecologist at Rutgers University, predicted that there will be as many spotted lanternflies this year as there were in 2023 — “or potentially more.”

He said that a warmish winter had helped hold down the population last year. They need “a period of cold to be cued in correctly, cued in to the environment,” he said. “The lanternflies didn’t have that.” The city’s streak of 701 days without snow “played into this,” he said.

Still, last month the Agriculture Department urged people to stomp out lanternflies by “smashing and scraping the invasive egg masses off into a plastic bag, sealing it and disposing of them” with household garbage. The agency said that eggs could turn up in tree bark, on cars and on things that have been stored outside. “If you are moving outdoor furniture or a recreational vehicle and camping equipment, check for flat, mudlike spotted lanternfly egg masses,” the agency said in a statement.


Weather

A warm, cloudy day with temperatures in the high 60s and wind from 7 to 9 miles per hour. Rain and thunderstorms are expected late in the evening, with temperatures in the mid 50s.

ALTERNATE-SIDE PARKING

Suspended today (Passover).


Columbia University said it was suspending students who had remained at their pro-Palestinian encampment after a Monday afternoon deadline set by the university.

Columbia’s announcement came as New York University said it would move to discipline student demonstrators who did not leave a pro-Palestinian encampment on its Greenwich Village campus.

Students in the encampment at Columbia, along with hundreds of supporters, spent a tense afternoon, rallying in a show of solidarity intended to deter the use of force. By 4 p.m. Monday — two hours after the deadline — the gathering had begun to break up, leaving only what appeared to be several dozen students inside the encampment.

The suspensions reflected the difficult balance for Columbia administrators, as they tried to avoid bringing the Police Department back onto the campus to arrest students and also to make clear that they wanted the protest to end. My colleagues Sharon Otterman and Sarah Maslin Nir write that Columbia officials apparently hope they can make the group inside the encampment dwindle without having to drive the protesters out, a step that administrators fear would set off more protests.


METROPOLITAN diary

Dear Diary:

The deli on West 40th Street across from my office closed during the pandemic, and I discovered another one a few blocks away that had great egg and cheese sandwiches.

The lovely woman whom I imagined to be the owner greeted me and everyone else who came in with a huge smile.

“Good morning, dear,” she shouted as we entered.

“Have a nice day, dear,” she said when we left.

Once I became a regular, she always got my coffee cup and protective sleeve ready for the self-pour as soon as she saw me walk in.

After I lost my job and was no longer commuting to Midtown, I missed those sandwiches and that morning ritual. Yes, it was just an egg and cheese on a toasted bagel, and a coffee, but it was my place that I really loved.

Six months after my last visit to the deli, I returned to the same office building — but not before stopping in for breakfast first. I was brimming with excitement.

I walked through the door and saw the woman at the counter. We locked eyes, and her face broke into a huge smile.

“Hello, my dear,” she shouted. “I haven’t seen you in a while. How are you?”

She soon had my coffee cup ready for me.

— Ben Schneider

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.


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