The venomous fangs of a copperhead snake are one thing. But the recent sighting of a rare two-headed snake in Northern Virginia is alarming — and mesmerizing — both social media spectators and scientists.
Earlier this month, a Woodbridge resident stumbled upon the young mutant reptile in a neighbor's yard. "I wanted to look away but couldn't stop looking at it. Plays trick[s] on the eyes," Stephanie Myers told USA Today after finding the snake and posting photos of it to her Facebook page.
What's even more exceptional is that the snake was discovered alive, according to state herpetologist J.D. Kleopfer, a reptiles and amphibians specialist at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Two-headed copperhead snakes are "extremely rare" to find in the wild, Kleopfer told NPR's Scott Simon on Weekend Edition Saturday. Their competing heads often contribute to their short life span. "They can't coordinate escaping from predators and they can't coordinate capturing foods, so they tend to not live," he says.
Luckily, the rest of the baby viper's anatomy is shared, Kleopfer says, which means that "both heads are getting the nutrition they need."
In a news release, the Wildlife Center of Virginia says Kleopfer brought the snake to the hospital on Sept. 20 for an examination. X-rays revealed that one head has a more developed esophagus, Kleopfer says, while the other has a more developed throat. "Based on that, we're just attempting to feed the [left] head," he says.
That's because the left head appears more dominant, the wildlife center adds. "It's generally more active and responsive to stimulus," the release reads. "It would be better for the right head to eat, but it may be a challenge since the left head appears more dominant."
That unusual mutation also prevents the snake's heads from quarreling with each other over the same food. Instead, Kleopfer says, the separated heads "seemed to be oblivious to each other."
The gender is still unknown, but Kleopfer estimates the baby viper to be about 3 weeks old and 6 to 8 inches long. Copperheads typically reach 18 to 36 inches in length. The scientist says a private keeper who specializes in vipers for zoological facilities is currently caring for the snake.
Venomous copperheads are a fairly common sighting for U.S. residents, especially in the Southeastern United States or in forested, temperate climates. Captive-bred two-headed snakes are slightly more common, he says, "but that's usually the result of inbreeding."
Kleopfer has been in the field of herpetology for some 30 years. Still, he says, "This is definitely a first" and an "extraordinarily rare" sighting that few of his colleagues have seen.
He hesitates to name the snake, as his goal right now is to keep it alive. If it survives, he says he hopes to donate the snake to a zoo.
As for the current state of the snake, Kleoper tells in NPR in a follow-up email, "The little guy or girl is doing well. It [has] eaten and pooped, which are excellent signs."
NPR's Sarah Handel and Viet Le produced and edited the story for broadcast.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A rare two-headed copperhead snake has recently been found alive in Virginia. One snake. One long, slithering body but two heads and two mouths with venomous fangs. A remarkable discovery, really, so we're joined now by J.D. Kleopfer. He is the state herpetologist at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. He joins us from Williamsburg, Va. Thanks so much for being with us.
J.D. KLEOPFER: Well, thank you for having me on.
SIMON: And how did this snake make it to you alive? Seems to me we usually hear about these things when the snakes are, you know, former snakes.
KLEOPFER: That is true. I'm equally as impressed that it's two-headed, as well as it's still alive. A lady up in Northern Virginia was coming out her front door and saw this small snake in her flower bed and realized that it had two heads and somehow got it into a bucket alive. And the rest has become social media history.
SIMON: So two heads, I gather, but a common digestive system?
KLEOPFER: Yes. It has two heads, but the rest of its anatomy is shared - digestive system, everything else.
SIMON: So does one head eat and the other burp?
KLEOPFER: Well, based on the X-rays, it appears that one head has a more well-developed esophagus, while the other head has a more developed throat. So based on that, we're just attempting to feed the one head to make sure that everything's OK.
SIMON: And the other head just kind of like - what, does it frown or what?
KLEOPFER: No, I don't think it's too unhappy. I haven't seen any tears come down its eyes yet. But they have a shared digestive system, so both heads are getting the nutrition they need.
SIMON: What happens to a two-headed copperhead snake?
KLEOPFER: Well, in the wild, they're extremely rare because of - they just don't live very long. They can't coordinate escaping from predators, and they can't coordinate capturing food. So they tend to not live. But in captivity, captive-bred two-headed snakes occasionally pop up, but that's usually the result of inbreeding.
SIMON: Well, does this snake - or do we call it snakes?
KLEOPFER: Singular would be fine.
SIMON: Have much prospects for a long life?
KLEOPFER: You know, it's a tough question because there's such few examples to work off of. But the latest I've heard from the individual who's caring for the animal is that he did get it to successfully feed over the weekend, and it appears to be doing fine. So we're keeping our fingers crossed that, you know, we're able to keep it going, and it lives a long, happy life.
SIMON: Forgive me. I'm one of these people that attaches names to animals.
SIMON: Maybe a herpetologist doesn't, but do you give the snake one name or two?
KLEOPFER: Well, we've had a few folks that have asked if we're going to have some kind of naming contest. And at this point, I don't want to give it a name in fear that I'll jinx it, and it won't live very much longer after we give it a name. But eventually, if the animal continues to thrive and grow, we'd like to lace it with a zoological facility somewhere within the Commonwealth of Virginia. And then they choose to do a naming contest. That's their prerogative.
SIMON: J.D. Kleopfer is state herpetologist at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Thanks so much for being with us.
KLEOPFER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.