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'Two heads, one snake' — Rare discovery made Sunday in Clay Center

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Josh Marshall was clearing brush at his girlfriend’s house Sunday in Clay Center when he lifted a log near her fire pit.

And he saw two garter snakes.

Two-headed snake

Josh Marshall found a two-headed Plains garter snake Sunday in Clay Center, east of Hastings.

Or he thought he did.

“It took me a second, but then I realized it was two heads on one snake,” he said Tuesday.

The snake wasn’t big — just a few inches long — and Marshall isn’t bothered by snakes. He picked it up, put it in a jar and took a few photos.

His girlfriend is a Clay County dispatcher, so they knew how to reach the Nebraska Game and Parks conservation officer assigned to the area.

“I called him, and he said, ‘I don’t want it, but I’m going to bet that UNL does.’”

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Marshall started Googling, and got lucky. First, he found the cell number for the UNL Department of Natural Resource’s resident reptile expert, Dennis Ferraro. And then he learned Ferraro was doing fieldwork in southwest Nebraska, and could pick up the double-headed snake that night on his way home to Lincoln.

Ferraro called it a rare discovery; he’s seen only a few in his 40 years as a herpetologist. And it’s a different mutation than the others, which were divided directly at the back of their heads, at the top vertebrae.

But the snake Marshall found had two distinct necks — covering maybe 10% of its overall length, and as many as 10 vertebrae — before the separate spines come together to share a body.

“Each head is acting independently,” Ferraro said. “Each head opens its mouth. Each head tries to go a different direction. But it's not really moving very much, because one head starts to go one way, and the other head starts to go the other way, and it’s a draw.”

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The professor isn’t sure what caused the mutation, but he has a couple of ideas.

It could have been an embryonic mutation, where the egg started to split into twins at an early stage but then stopped, leaving it with bicephaly — two heads, two necks and one body.

Or it could be the result of what herpetologists call aggregation mating. In the spring, when females come out of hibernation, they mate with multiple males at the same time.

“So it might have been, in this case, that this ovum got hit with two sperms almost simultaneously. I don't know if that would have done it or not, but it's something that could have happened.”

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Ferraro estimated the snake is fewer than 10 days old, and would not have lasted long in the wild. But now that he has it safe in the lab, he plans to try to keep it alive, and to study it — starting with an ultrasound, and maybe X-rays.

He also plans to share it with his herpetology students. And when it does die, it will be preserved in alcohol and stored at the university.

But it will also live on in the photos Marshall posted online. He doesn’t mind snakes, but he doesn’t like to post on Facebook.

Still, someone urged him to share a few photos to the Nebraska through the Lens page Sunday, and it took off. Within hours, 3,000 people liked it. By Tuesday, that number was up to 7,600 — and nearly 2,500 people had shared his post.

“Little did I know exactly how much attention that would get.”

Editor's note: We have detected a technical issue that is preventing some users from being able to log in to comment. We are working to have the issue resolved shortly. Thank you for your patience.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter

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