Last October, teenager Terry Lowery of Hurley, MO made an unusual discovery under the deck of his family's home.
At first he thought the snake he had found was a copperhead, and his first instinct was to kill it. But then he noticed that it wasn't just any ordinary snake, and he decided it might not be a copperhead after all. This snake had two heads.
After doing some online research, he and his family determined it was a non-venomous western rat snake. They contacted Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, and zoo staff contacted John Miller, director of the Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery Conservation Center in Branson. The Lowery family wanted the snake to be displayed to the public. Beginning today, visitors to the hatchery are able to see it.
According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, staff observed the snake for awhile to assess its health. Since it arrived at the hatchery last fall, the snake has shed twice, and it's eating, said John Miller, manager of the Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery Conservation Center.
"Both heads actually eat," he said. They were curious whether both heads were connected to the same body through the esophagus, "and, sure enough, after feeding them one at a time, they both eat, both heads eat," he said.
The two heads don't always work together, according to Miller. One may want to get a drink while the other doesn't, but staff makes sure the snake gets adequate amounts of water.
The condition of having more than one head is extremely rare in the animal kingdom, but it occurs more frequently in snakes than other species. In most documented cases, according to MDC, two-headed snakes have lived only a few months, but there have been instances where they have lived full lives in captivity and even reproduced. A two-headed black snake has lived at the nature center in Cape Girardeau for 12 years, said Miller. But the chance of one surviving in the wild is slim. Just as with drinking, eating is also difficult. "One head may try to strike, the other one may try to flee away from what it was trying to strike at," he said.
MDC herpetologist, Jeff Briggler, said, "this is similar to Siamese twins in which a developing embryo inside the egg does not fully divide into identical twins and, thus, the twins are joined.
The gender of the snake at Shepherd of the Hills won't be known until it's sexually mature, which is expected to be in six to eight months. The Lowery family was ready with names when Miller went to get the snake. If it's a boy, the snake will be named Jeff and Jeffrey, and if it's a girl, the names will be Tiger and Lily.
Visitors to the center won't just get to view the snake, they'll be able to touch it, too, Miller said. And he's issued a challenge: To try to capture a photograph while both tongues are out.