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Ever Seen a Sea Snake?

A yellow-bellied sea snake appears in Newport Beach

NHMLA Associate Curator of Herpetology Greg Pauly examines the deceased yellow-bellied sea snake at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, representing the fifth record of this species in California history.

 

It was an exciting week for Greg Pauly, NHMLA’s Associate Curator of Herpetology, because a yellow-bellied sea snake washed up on a Southern California beach. This snake, Hydrophis platurus, is a tropical species that doesn’t usually come this far north, so it’s appearance in Newport Beach is highly unusual.

All four previous sightings of this snake in California happened during El Niño years, when the weather phenomenon brings warmer waters to our shores, along with other unusual visitors like hammerhead sharks and Bryde’s whales. However, this week’s sighting is the first documented occurrence of this species in California in a non-El Niño year, so it’s even more intriguing. Is this a result of warming oceans? The phrase “sea snake on a California beach” may be the new “canary in a coal mine” for climate change.

“For the fourth time in just over two years, we have discovered this beautiful sea snake in Southern California,” said Greg Pauly, Associate Curator of Herpetology at NHMLA. “It’s uncommon for these snakes to be seen this far north, as they favor warmer waters off the coast of Central America and Mexico, and, until now, unprecedented for us to see one in a non-El Niño year, when offshore temperatures are cool. We are thrilled to add it to our permanent collections and to have the opportunity to understand what brought it here, and what its presence might mean for the ecology of Southern California’s ocean.”

But how did it get here?

Yellow-bellied sea snakes are good swimmers (they’re actually so adapted to aquatic life they can’t slither on the ground), but just how does this 2-foot-long snake wind up hundreds of miles from home? Just the right combination of ocean currents, water temperatures, and wind made it possible for this snake to move this far north. The Davidson Current is a big player in this saga. It’s active on the ocean’s surface from October through March (the time period all five known sea snakes appeared in Southern California) and is running about 10-20 miles offshore, sweeping warm water northward. (At other times of the year it is still flowing northward, but it is well below the ocean’s surface.) This current could pick up an unsuspecting sea snake and shuttle it up the coast. As a lost sea snake encounters increasingly cold water, it becomes tired, sick, and unable to digest its food. That’s when winds push it ashore where observant beachgoers might find it stranded on the sand.

a closeup photo of a yellow-belied sea snake on a towel. it's face is black
Yellow-bellied sea snakes can be found on the coasts of Africa, Asia, Australia, Central America and Mexico, including the Baja California Peninsula — and increasingly, Southern California. Of the five snakes that have so far become stranded on California beaches, one arrived in October (2015), one in November (1972), one in December (2015), and two in January (2016 and 2018).

During El Niño events, the Davidson Current intensifies and brings even more warm water to the California coast, which is partly why we tend to get sea snakes primarily in El Niño years.

If you see a sea snake

a photo of the nature lab exhibit at NHMLA showing people enjoying the exhibits about urban nature
From January 13–15, 2018, visitors to NHMLA will have the opportunity to view several other sea snakes that washed up during the 2015–16 El Niño in the Museum’s Nature Lab, an exhibit dedicated to telling stories of Southern California’s urban biodiversity. From January 20–21, when this newest snake has been fully preserved, it will also be made available for public viewing alongside the others.

Although these snakes are venomous, beachgoers need not be overly worried. “No one has ever died from the bite of this animal,” Pauly says. “Their fangs are tiny and they can barely open their mouths wide enough to bite a person.”

If you happen to see one of these snakes — or other unusual nature sightings around Southern California — keep a safe distance and send any photos to the NHMLA Community Science team by emailing nature@nhm.org or tagging photos on social media using #natureinla. You never know; you might just make the next record-making nature discovery.

 

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