RIO DE JANEIRO - Brazil is known for its exotic fauna, but the creatures on display Sunday night for the opening round of Rio's exuberant Carnival parade were a motley crew even by local standards.
Full grown adults dressed up as Nemo the fish rubbed shoulders with weightlifting wolves with enviable six-packs, while bare-breasted dancers gyrated atop floats shaped like giant crustaceans or bedecked with XXL ants.
The Carnival competition sees the city's top samba groups, or schools, parade in the Sambadrome, each delivering an over-the-top, hour-long display aimed at capturing the annual title.
No excess is deemed too much, and each year the bar is raised that much higher. Sunday's all-night-long displays saw a float shaped like a mammoth wedding cake presided over by a larger-than-life Pope Francis, a herd of elderly gentlemen in jewel-toned bull costumes complete with sequin-covered horns, and a dancing teepee surrounded by native Brazilians in green feather headdresses.
Though each school ostensibly has a theme, the costumes are often so varied and sometimes unidentifiable that it can be hard to identify the common thread.
Imperio da Tijuca, the school that opened this year's competition, was ostensibly fielding an African theme, so its huge crab-shaped float was a perplexing choice. Mangueira, one of the most famous schools known for its distinctive green and pink colors, turned to Carnival itself for a parade that feted Brazil's traditional celebrations in a sea of salmon pink and lime green feathers.
Each school has legions of loyal followers, many of whom parade for the same group for decades or root for their favorite from the bleachers.
"I paraded for 15 years for one school," said Jose Vieira, a retired restaurateur who was soaking in the action from one of the exclusive areas sponsored by top Brazilian companies where the elite gather to drink free beer and watch the parade from above. "It's a wonderful experience. Even from up here in this nice space, I really miss being down there."
Each samba school is judged in 10 categories, from the quality of the drum sections to the beauty of the costumes. Whichever group comes in last falls from the top-tier competition into a lower category contest. The competition continues Monday night with displays by six additional schools.
Rio's Carnival celebrations aren't limited to the Sambadrome, where even a ticket for the bleachers can cost hundreds of dollars. The city is also the site of nearly 500 raucous, beer-fueled street parties that begin at daybreak and pulse through the night.