A two-headed snake is easy prey for a bored domestic cat roaming outdoors. A family in Florida found out firsthand when their pet cat dragged a two-headed southern black racer in through the doggy door and dropped it on the living room floor, Julie Salomone reports for WFTS Tampa Bay.
The snake was still alive, so 13-year-old Avery Rogers placed it in a plastic container and sent a message to her mom Kay to let her know what their cat had found. The family got in touch with local reptile experts to build a safe habitat for the snake, which they named Dos, after the Spanish word for “two,” Brandon Specktor reports for Live Science. After about five days, the Rogers family transferred the snake to the Florida Wildlife Conservation’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
“I really just wanted to kind of see him thrive and have people that would take care of him and give him the best chance,” Rogers tells WFTS. “They don't live well in the wild at all. I know captivity was the best hope for him.”
The snake’s two-headed stature is called bicephaly, and it happens when an embryo begins to split into identical twins but doesn’t separate all the way. The condition isn’t unique to snakes—in humans, bicephaly results in conjoined twins. A pair of conjoined twins can be connected at any point along the spine and share different organs depending on where they are connected.
Dos the snake has two independent heads with their own brains, flicking tongues and throats. Unfortunately, that causes problems both when avoiding predators like the Rogers’ cat, and when trying to find its own meals. A video of Dos shows how the pair of heads struggle to decide what direction to slither, sometimes flipping themselves upside down as each attempts to lead the way.
"If the two heads are very close together it's going to be much more difficult for them,” University of Tennessee herpetologist Gordon Burghart told National Geographic’s Hillary Mayell in 2002. “With more separation, they can act a little more independently.”
It’s difficult to estimate just how rare bicephaly is among wild snakes since they usually only survive for a few weeks, making them difficult for researchers to find and count. But a paper published in 2013 in the Journal of Comparative Pathology found that of 4,087 pit viper hatchlings studied, three hatched with bicephaly, and of 324 rattlesnake hatchlings, none had bicephaly.
"It's the first two-headed snake that I've personally seen, though I've observed it in turtles before," says Florida Wildlife Conservation herpetologist Jonathan Mays to CNN’s Giulia Heyward and Saeed Ahmed.
The snake’s two heads make it uncoordinated, so it struggles to eat, Rogers tells WFTS. One head would see the food and try to move toward it, but the other would pull in the other direction. At the research institute, Dos has been able to eat every couple of days. It’s now over a month old.
“We currently have the snake and are simply trying to keep it alive as it lacks the natural ability to feed on its own,” Mays tells CNN.
A two-headed king snake that was found as a baby survived for 17 years in captivity at Arizona State University, National Geographic reported. But as Mays tells CNN, a two-headed copperhead that was found in Virginia last year only survived for a few weeks in the care of the Wildlife Center of Virginia. If Dos regains its strength, the research institute plans to incorporate it into reptile outreach programs.