October 22, 2015
Over the past month, Southern Californians have observed two species of snakes that will forever change our understanding of the region’s snake fauna. One of the species is already a media darling, a beautiful but venomous sea snake recently showcased in dozens of media outlets. The other is small, brown, and cryptic, but in many ways has an even more remarkable story to tell. Let’s meet the two players in this story. The Yellow-bellied Sea Snake, Pelamis platura (often listed incorrectly as P. platurus)
The Yellow-bellied sea snake that washed up on Silver Strand Beach, Oxnard, Ventura County on Oct 15 and 16, 2015. Photographed shortly after it died by Ashley Spratt/USFWS. This sea snake ranges from the west coast of Central America across the Pacific and Indian Oceans to the east coast of Africa. It is the most wide-ranging snake species in the world. However, in most years, the closest it gets to Southern California is in the Gulf of California, enjoying the extra warm waters nestled between Baja California and mainland Mexico. Further south, it occurs along the Pacific Coast of central Mexico, but it is not normally found in the much colder waters along the Pacific Coast of the Baja California Peninsula. Typically, the warm, north-flowing Davidson Current runs up the coast of Mexico and reaches about a quarter of the way up the Baja Peninsula. There, around Magdalena Bay, it meets the cold, south-flowing California Current. The result is that water temperatures are too low along most of the Pacific Coast of Baja for sea snakes. In El Niño years, however, temperatures off the coast of Baja and Southern California are much warmer than usual because the warm Davidson Current extends much further north. In stronger El Niño years, sea snakes sometimes follow these warm waters northward and can be found far north of their typical range. This scenario played out last week in Ventura County. Around 6pm Thursday October 16th, Anna Iker and her family came across a yellow-bellied sea snake washed up on Silver Strand Beach in Oxnard. As the tide came in, the snake was washed back into the sea. By the next morning, the snake had been washed ashore again. Local resident Bob Forbes was alerted to a strange animal on the beach, and he headed out to see it. With years of experience surfing tropical breaks around the world, Bob immediately recognized the animal. Worried that an unknowing kid might pick up the highly venomous snake, Bob put it in a bucket and took it to his house. He then posted a video of the snake to Facebook, and the herpetological community in Southern California went nuts! Video of the Yellow-bellied sea snake that washed up on Silver Strand Beach, courtesy of Bob Forbes. On Friday morning, my email and phone nearly simultaneously alerted me to this find. While people were emailing me reports of the snake from social media, other professional herpetologists were running through their phone lists trying to find someone who was close and could respond. Bob alerted Elaine Ibarra of the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network who alerted US Navy biologists. Minutes later, Navy biologist Rob Lovich contacted UCLA herpetologist Brad Shaffer, who contacted me. We then contacted Cat Darst and Robert McMorran, biologists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service who were closest to the snake. They were able to locate Bob, get the snake brought to their office, and then phone me to come evaluate the snake. From first phone call to the snake being at the USFWS Ventura Field Office was only about an hour. This was herpetological 911 at its finest! Dropping everything, I arrived in Ventura a few hours later to evaluate the health of the snake. Yellow-bellied sea snakes spend their ENTIRE lives at sea. Mother yellow-bellied sea snakes even give birth to live young at sea. If these fully aquatic snakes get washed ashore, it is usually because they are ill. Thus, there was a good chance this Oxnard snake wasn’t in great health, especially given that it had been washed up twice. Unfortunately, I arrived to find that the snake had died sometime in the previous 30 minutes. Although sad, the snake is now being preserved and will serve as an important voucher of the northernmost Yellow-bellied sea snake ever documented in North America. Did you catch that? Let me say it again, in case you missed it: This is the northernmost Yellow-bellied sea snake ever documented in North America. And we only know about this because a couple of observant citizen scientists helped document the observation by taking photos and videos. You can see those observations posted to our Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California project here and here. The previous northernmost sea snake record is also housed in the Museum’s Herpetology Collection. It washed ashore on San Clemente Beach November 23, 1972. Not surprisingly, 1972 was also a very strong El Niño year and water temperatures off Southern California were also abnormally high that year. Because of the strength of our 2015–2016 El Niño, I had been daydreaming for many months of a sea snake showing up in Southern California, but I never considered that it might show up so far north. The Silver Strand Beach sea snake represents a range extension of over 100 miles from the previous record, and the first documented sighting in California in nearly 43 years! The 1972 record was from late November, actually from Thanksgiving Day 1972! Two other northern records from Baja are also from November, these both being observed during the weak El Niño of 1977–78. It is possible that there are other sea snakes currently off the coast of Southern California, searching for small fish in a rocky intertidal area off San Diego, San Clemente Beach, or maybe off the Channel Islands. As our El Niño conditions continue, keep an eye out. Maybe take a beach walk with your family this coming Thanksgiving, smartphone or digital camera in hand, ready to make the next amazing citizen science discovery. And just to be clear, take photos and email those to email@example.com or #natureinla. Do not handle this snake. It is highly venomous, although it is also incredibly rare that people get envenomated. Unlike rattlesnakes and many other common Southern California snakes, sea snakes can’t open their mouths very wide. They don’t need to because they specialize on easy to swallow small fish and eels. They also have very tiny fangs. If people get bitten, it is usually because they are handling the snake, often because they are removing it from fishing nets in more tropical waters. Even among those bites, the small fangs rarely make contact with the person and inject venom. So yes it is highly venomous, but it is also the most wide-ranging snake in the world and to my knowledge, there isn’t a single recorded human fatality (unlike for mosquitoes, cattle, deer, dogs, or one of those other dangerous species). The Brahminy Blindsnake, Ramphotyphlops braminus (also called the flowerpot snake)
A large Brahminy blindsnake found in Southern California October 2015. Photo by E. Chamorro/NHMLA. Our second snake species also holds a geographic claim to fame. The Brahminy blindsnake is the most wide-ranging terrestrial snake in the world! It also happens to be one of the smallest snakes in the world and is easily mistaken for an earthworm, which are often bigger than these snakes! This snake is likely in the backyards of thousands of people living across Southern California, but we are just now learning how widespread it is becoming. First documented in Southern California in February 2000, this snake was observed at 17 unique localities over the next 16 years. Then in early September 2015, something unfamiliar happened in Southern California—IT RAINED!! And Southern Californians and Brahminy blindsnakes alike rejoiced. Crawling through rain-softened soils, the snakes came to the surface and started slithering across wet lawns and sidewalks in search of new gardens with new ant and termite colonies to dine on (that’s their preferred food). When seen by people, most of these wandering snakes were probably ignored, assumed to simply be earthworms. But a few people took notice, and most importantly took photographs. These photographs were submitted to our Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California citizen science project and other citizen science venues. As a result, just in the past month, we have found 8 new localities in Southern California. We have been averaging one record a year for 16 years and with a couple of rainstorms, we now are getting two records a week, all from citizen scientists. These records will be included in a scientific paper documenting the rapid spread of this species in Southern California. A Brahminy blindsnake found in an urban backyard in October 2015. Photo by R. Gertz/NHMLA. So who is the Brahminy blindsnake? This tiny snake maxes out at about 6.5 inches long and the width of a cooked spaghetti noodle. Juveniles and subadults are closer to the width of a capellini noodle. (I should not write blogs when I’m hungry.) We think Brahminy blindsnakes are native to India and South Asia, but we don’t really know its exact native range because people have been accidentally moving this snake around for thousands of years. This snake eats the eggs, larvae, and pupae of ants and termites. Being tiny and in leaf litter, soil, or possibly even in termite colonies within sticks and other building materials, this snake has been hitching rides with people for a long time. It now occurs in warmer environments all around the world. Most recently, it has been hitching rides in the soil of nursery plants, giving it a new name, the flowerpot snake. It is likely coming to Southern California via nursery shipments from Hawaii and Florida (just like many other nonnative lizards and frogs). This snake is an excellent colonizer. This is an asexual species; all individuals are females. Thus, a single female can travel across an ocean in the soil of a tropical nursery plant and then start laying eggs on a new continent. Her daughters hatch from those eggs and grow up to produce their own daughters. More records will undoubtedly get reported in Southern California in coming weeks. Please help us document the arrival and spread of this new snake. We have records from Bakersfield to the Mexico border, but the 25 existing records are probably a tiny fraction of the actual range. These snakes likely occur in thousands of front and backyard gardens across the region. How to find them. These snakes like moist, organic soils. They spend almost their entire lives underground, but they are easiest to find by looking under pots, stepping stones, old boards, and other objects that have been lying on the ground for some time. They can also be found crawling across wet sidewalks after rains or running the sprinklers. Check in mulch piles and other organic soils as well. Just check carefully that what you are looking at slithers like a snake, has a tiny tongue flicking out, and has two small dark eyespots on its head and a tail with a spiny tip. Otherwise, it might be an earthworm! And have no fear, these tiny snakes are completely harmless, except that their presence might indicate termites near by, which could hurt your bank account if those termites are hurting your house. How to document them. If you see a Yellow-bellied sea snake or a Brahminy blindsnake or any other critters that you think might be new and/or exciting finds in Southern California, you can reach museum experts by emailing observations to firstname.lastname@example.org or using #natureinla. UPDATE: The trend continues; Brahminy blindsnakes are continuing to be found in Southern California at an unprecedented rate. From 2000 until about 1.5 months ago, approximately 1 blindsnake has been found in Southern California per year. However, since mid-September we have been receiving approximately two reports per week, all documented with either high-quality photos or specimens provided to the Museum. The large early season rains caused these burrowing snakes to increase their surface activity, and people all across Southern California have been finding them. The rate of observations is slowly falling because it has been a while since the last rain storm. Nevertheless, in the past 1.5 weeks, a snake was reported to us from El Monte, and I found a blindsnake crawling along the edge of a lawn in a Santa Ana business park. At the Santa Ana site, the snakes occur across a region that is at least 0.3 miles wide, suggesting there is a well-established population there. We can expect more snakes to be found in coming weeks, and we hope that any observations will be reported to us by emailing email@example.com. Those living in the San Joaquin Valley should keep a close eye out as the first major winter storm of the season is forecast for Sunday night. This snake has already been reported from Bakersfield, so folks living in Bakersfield, Fresno, and other Central Valley towns should keep a close eye on any small, brown, worm-like critters crossing their sidewalks after the rains. One could very well be the next blindsnake recorded in California.