Durban - Herpetologist Craig Smith from the South African Association for Marine Biological Research(Saambr) based at uShaka Marine World in Durban, where a rare two-headed Southern brown egg-eater snake is being taken care of, says the large neck area connected to each head has never been seen before in South Africa and abroad.
Local snake rescuer Nick Evans went to collect the rare two-headed snake from a man who captured it in Ndwedwe in northern KZN recently. The snake was then taken to Ushaka Marine World.
Speaking to The Mercury on Wednesday, Smith said the two-headed snake is "doing fine" and is quite active.
Smith said two-headed snakes are a rarity.
He said while it does happen from time to time, it is not an everyday occurrence and it is a body anomaly that is not normal.
Smith said this is the first time that he has known this anomaly to occur in this species of snake in South Africa.
“Two-headed snakes in South Africa over the last 20 or 30 years, there have been a few. There was a brown house snake and a red herald snake in the mid 90s which were two that were quite well documented in those days. In South Africa this is the first time I've known it to happen with this species,” he said.
He said two-headed snakes are not the only anomaly seen in snakes but albinism as well. Both anomalies occur in people as well.
“So it's just a body anomaly, it's a genetic kick back that happens. With albinism and with this, it is very similar to a Siamese twin. Its two bodies are conjoined. Sometimes with more than one set of organs and with this particular one the separation is quite far down the neck,” said Smith.
Smith further explained that generally, with two-headed snakes, the two heads are very closely joined with a very little ‘neck’ area.
“In this particular case, there is a lot of neck area and that is an interesting difference between this one and any of the others that we have seen before, both in South Africa and abroad,” he said.
He said while X-rays have not yet been done to see what the skeletal formation is, it is planned for a future date.
“At the moment we are taking it slowly and step by step to just make sure that the animal is in the best possible condition,” he said.
Smith said the separation of the heads gives him hope with regard to feeding the snake.
“When we do try and feed it we will only really be able to see how well the snake will feed once we get the right sized egg in there and see if he or she will feed,” he said.
According to Smith, two-headed snakes do not have a favourable outcome as they are not particularly fast and their movements are less coordinated than a one-headed snake. As a result they fall prey to predators more easily.
“They definitely would be very vulnerable in the wild so that’s one of the reasons that Nick Evans has taken to not re-releasing this particular animal,” he said.
He said it is difficult to predict if the snake will survive.
“They normally battle quite a lot and getting them to adult size is quite rare,” he noted.
Smith shared some additional interesting facts about two-headed snakes:
- Both heads do not have to eat for it to survive because it has one body.
- With this particular animal, both heads are very well formed.
- There are four eyes and they are all working well. They look like two normal heads.
- When it swallows, it has a bone formation in the neck which helps to crack the egg open and helps it swallow the contents of the egg. It then regurgitates the shell.
- There is normally one head which is more dominant and that one would probably be the primary feeding head.
Smith added that it would be interesting to see how the snake copes with the eating process.