As the most abundant snakes in North America and with venom that rarely has lethal effects on humans, copperheads may be a bit alarming to spot slithering down the sidewalk; however they are nothing out of the ordinary. Their unmarked head with reddish-brown scales and medium size help them to blend in and go easily unnoticed. That is, unless they have two heads! A woman in Virginia happened upon just that while doing a bit of gardening on September 20, 2018. Her neighbor uploaded pictures of the two headed copperhead snake to social media where it gained widespread attention.
The bicephalic (two-headed) reptile was picked up by the Virginia Wildlife Center and taken to the center of examination to be studied by the state herpetologist. After x-rays, the copperhead was revealed to have a single heart and one set of lungs, but two tracheas and two esophagi. They also found its left head responded more to stimulus and was more active, so consider it the “more dominant” head. Finally, the rare viper was determined to be a baby, its estimated age being around three weeks.
So exactly how rare is a two headed snake? State herpetologist J.D. Kleopfer says it’s extremely rare to find a snake with two heads, especially while it is still alive. He explains that this is because the two brains will often contradict each other and make the animal more vulnerable to predators or unable to efficiently catch prey. Sometimes, the opposite heads mistake each other for prey and try to eat their own other head! Their low survival rate is the main factor in the rarity of two-headed snakes. This is evident in the recently found snake in that its left head is more dominant however its right head has a more developed throat for swallowing prey.
What causes a snake to be born with two heads? In short, the snake is basically identical twins but in one body. On the biological level, this means an embryo splitting to make two identical twin snakes is suddenly stopped in the middle of separating them. This is very similar to how human conjoined twins are born. These conjoined snakes can have multiples of many different organs, including stomachs, and can be conjoined at many different places. While other animals such as goats, cats, sheep, and turtles have been found to have more than one head, it is most common in snakes.
Although most bicephalic animals do not live very long lives, the snake found last month has hope for a long happy life! Two-headed animals tend to thrive much more in captive environments where they do not have to compete for food or escape from predators. In fact, one two-headed snake lived in captivity for almost seventeen years while another went on to reproduce and give birth to fifteen (single-headed) babies. With this is mind, professionals in Virginia are currently taking care of the recently found two-headed snake, and it will hopefully be available for public viewing at a local zoo in the near future.