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Life Is Confusing For Two-Headed Snakes

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
Updated March 22, 2002
 
The two-headed monsters of myth may have a basis in reality. Two-headed snakes are rare but not unheard of, and one recently found in Spain is giving scientists an opportunity to study how the anomaly affects their ability to hunt and mate.

"We hear of one every several years," said Gordon Burghardt, a herpetologist at the University of Tennessee who has studied several two-headed snakes.

The snake in Spain, discovered near the village of Pinoso, is a two-month-old non-venomous ladder snake Elaphe scalaris. It is about eight inches (20 centimeters) long.

It's probably lucky it was captured—its chances of surviving in the wild are nil, said Burghardt.

"Just watching them feed, often fighting over which head will swallow the prey, shows that feeding takes a good deal of time, during which they would be highly vulnerable to predators," said Burghardt. "They also have a great deal of difficulty deciding which direction to go, and if they had to respond to an attack quickly they would just not be capable of it."



And that's assuming that both heads are hungry at the same time, and both are interested in pursuing the same prey.

"Having two heads would be a hindrance in the wild," agreed James Badman of Arizona State University. "It would be much harder to catch prey." Arizona State was home to a two-headed king snake that was found as a baby. It lived for nearly 17 years in captivity at the university.

Even in captivity, there are problems. Snakes operate a good deal by smell, and if one head catches the scent of prey on the other's head, it will attack and try to swallow the second head.

On the whole, though, they can do quite well in captivity, said Burghardt. Thelma and Louise, a two-headed corn snake at the San Diego Zoo that's now deceased, had 15 normal babies.

Anomaly, Not Evolution

Two-headed snakes typically occur in the same way that Siamese twins do. A developing embryo begins to split into identical twins but then stops part way, leaving the twins joined. Among humans, 75 percent of conjoined twins are stillborn or die within 24 hours.

The point at which the embryo stops separating varies. Just as Siamese twins can be joined at the head, breast, or hip, so too can snakes be joined at varying places on their bodies.

Although it's difficult to be certain, captive inbreeding may cause more two-headed births than in the wild.

"There are no statistics available, since the majority of two-headed snakes cannot survive long after birth in the wild," said Van Wallach, a researcher at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

"The few examples we have are fortuitously captured," he continued. "Many more individuals are surely born, but we never see them. My guess is that they are occurring with greater frequency in captivity than in nature. There is no way to test this, of course, because we can't sample the wild specimens we are unaware of."

"It's not an evolved trait, so each two-headed animal would be highly individual," said Burghardt. Where the split occurs along the body determines how much duplication of organs there is and the degree of competition between the two heads.

"If the two heads are very close together it's going to be much more difficult for them. With more separation, they can act a little more independently," he said.

Individuals, Not Freaks

Each head of the king snake at Arizona State University was supported by a separate neck, but they shared a single stomach. The two-headed black rat snake that lived for close to 20 years at Burghardt's lab had two complete throats and stomachs. Pictures of the ladder snake in Spain show two completely separated heads that join the body at about "neck" level.

That snake is destined for the lab of Enrique Font, a biologist at the University of Valencia. It's too early to tell which organs may be duplicated, he said.

"As I have not yet been able to examine it, I'm reluctant to speculate as to what could be done with it," he said. "To the best of my knowledge, the snake has not been sexed yet. If it is a male, I would be interested in finding out how the snake courts a female.

"In some snake species," he added, "the male rubs its chin against the female dorsum during courtship. As this particular snake has two heads—which may have different ideas about courting and mating—and two chins, it would be nice to find out how the two heads manage the deal and also to find out what the female's response is."

Font is also interested in looking at how—and whether—the two heads cooperate in targeting and capturing prey, and what role two brains play in regulating hunger and mediating other behaviors.

"These animals shouldn't be looked at as freaks," said Burghardt. "They're organisms with motivations and individuality just like any other. They provide us with an opportunity to study cooperation and the processes of controlling the same body with two nervous systems. Studying them might provide some insight into the survival issues faced by Siamese twins."
 

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