Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Two-headed Rattlesnake in Arkansas! Behind the Sciences Interview with Dr. Lori Neuman-Lee.

Courtesy Mark Young
   Hey all, two-headed rattlesnakes are real! I hope you'll check out my recent Earth Touch article about a two-headed Timber Rattlesnake that was recently found in Arkansas. After that, come back here and read my full interview with Dr. Lori Neuman-Lee, a new assistant professor at Arkansas State University and herpetology expert! Dr. Neuman-Lee is currently caring for the rattlesnake so I asked her a few questions about what is in store for this unique animal.

Basically, what are your plans for this snake?

     As of now, we hope to keep this snake alive and as an ambassador outreach animal. It is being kept in a locked cage in the time being, but, ultimately, we would hope that it could be on permanent display. It is a beautiful animal and the curiosity and wonder that it has generated, as well as a sense of excitement, speaks to its value as an outreach animal. As of now, the animal seems to be in generally good condition.

If you plan on keeping it alive, can you describe the care? How does the care of a two-headed rattlesnake differ from a regular animal?

     We will be keeping it in a large, locked enclosure with access to water and lots of places to hide. It is a neonate—it was born only in the last few weeks and thus hasn’t eaten. This isn’t uncommon for baby rattlesnakes because they have been given maternal provisions. We are weighing the snake on a weekly basis to monitor any drops in weight. Later this week, we intend to try feeding it using mice parts. We don’t know which head will want to eat—but we are going to try and offer the mouse to the more dominant (left) head first. Unfortunately, we don’t know the internal structure of the snake, so we don’t know if there is just one stomach and if only one esophagus leads to the stomach and digestive tract. We are going to do the best we can to let the snake make decisions! In the meantime, we will be giving him water and warmth so that he can adjust to his new environment. The differences in care arise mostly from the fact that we don’t know the internal structure, but we are going to care for it as we would any snake.

What scientific value does this snake present?

    This snake provides some truly unique opportunities for us to understand more about these cryptic and secretive animals. We are not planning on conducting any experiments on this snake, but we will be monitoring its behavior. Already it has been fascinating to watch as the left head has started to become more dominant and now leads the right head. We hope to understand more about what the ecological consequences might be for this individual. When this snake passes away, we will do dissections to understand its internal structure and may be able to examine how development occurred. On a broader level, however, this snake presents a value to the scientific community because it is shining light on this species that is imperiled and persecuted throughout much of its range in the eastern United States. While snake bites from Timber Rattlesnakes are extremely rare, many people still fear and kill them on-sight. This isn’t only putting the person in danger, it removes a valuable part of the ecosystem. If this snake can help to inspire people to appreciate these animals, I think that is its greatest contribution. And who knows, maybe a young person will be inspired to become a herpetologist!

Have you ever seen a two-headed rattlesnake before?

    I haven’t! I have only been in Arkansas for about 2 months—so this is a great welcome to the state and to Arkansas State University!

What would you do if you found a two-headed snake in the wild?

    It depends. If it was a neonate, such as this individual, I would probably remove it. Two-headed snakes rarely survive very long due to genetic problems, but also because they struggle to effectively hide/avoid predators and find food. I saw that with this snake in the first days. It was climbing on a log and it kept falling off because the heads were causing it to become unbalanced. I don’t think this little snake would have survived long in the wild. If I had found an adult, though, I would leave it. It clearly has figured out how to survive. However, I would urge members of the general public to use caution and to keep snakes in their wild habitat. Wild snakes can be very difficult to keep in captivity—especially two-headed snakes! There are lots of professionals that would be happy to help and answer questions.

Is there anything about the snakes of Arkansas that you want people to know that hasn’t appeared in other articles about this animal?

    In knowing your blog, I know that you will stress the importance of snakes in the ecosystem and the value that they provide to our environment. Rattlesnakes are a symbol of the United States and protecting and respecting them is something we should do as Americans! While this little snake is special, all snakes deserve to be respected. I urge individuals to consider snakes like an unknown dog that shows up in their yard—you wouldn’t approach an unknown dog and you certainly wouldn’t kill it! Snakes respect our space as long as we respect theirs. Snakes in general are so maligned and I am glad that this little special snake is allowing us to talk about how awesome these creatures are!



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