The Twins of Cape Girardeau Nature Center
Hey there and welcome back to Nature Boost. I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
The western black rat snake is one of Missouri's most common snakes. It's found in virtually every corner of the state. It's dark color can give it kind of a menacing appearance, but it's non-venomous, it's harmless to humans, and it can be beneficial to have on your property. As we've discussed in past nature boost episodes, snakes are one of the most common phobias affecting about 10% of the world's population. I didn't even realize that it was that prevalent. But I have to know is there a name for an irrational fear of two-headed snakes? I recently traveled down to MDC's Cape Girardeau Nature Center where a two-headed rat snake has been attracting visitors since it arrived almost 20 years ago. Naturalist Alex Holmes was generous enough to give me all of the details.
Alex, we are recording this at the end of August which we all know is basically the start of Halloween season. So I appreciate you meeting with me today to talk about a really cool member you have here at the Cape Girardeau Nature Center - your two-headed. It's a western black rat snake, is that correct?
>> Yeah, that's correct. Some of them might know them as pilot snakes, black snakes, chicken snakes, there's a million different names but western black rat snake is totally fine.
>> Chicken snake?
>> They have a habit of showing up in chicken coops from time to time. They are big egg eaters, among other things they eat an enormous amount of rodents but also will borrow an egg or two.
>> This has got witchy vibes all over it. I mean, I feel like if I look at this snake it is going to start talking and then tell me how I die. It's kind of got that like American Horror Story vibe to it. I'm sure you get quite the reaction from the public down here in Cape Girardeau.
>> Yeah, I mean, they've always been an enormous way to start a conversation about reptiles. So, with that unique situation that they have being conjoined at the neck; it gets people's attention and then we get to say but you know what, having these snakes around as creepy crawly as they seem the one headed versions are great to have in your yard. They do us an enormous amount of good. It's a great conversation starter for us as teachers here at the Nature Center.
>> Yeah, absolutely, and we will get into the benefits of having snakes around because I know there you must deal with a lot of people. That's their biggest fear and, "Oh! you know!" Especially, another part of my job, I'm not sure if many podcast listeners know is that I also help manage MDC's social media and that's one of the most common comments that we get from the public any time we post anything snake related. "Burn it with fire!" but no, no, no, snakes are definitely beneficial to have around. But before we get into that, I want to know a little more about this two-headed snake's back story. How was it discovered?
>> So there was a boy in Delta, Missouri, which is kind of the top of the boot heel. They brought this snake in that they found in their backyard with two heads. It was a new hatchling. They brought it in around this time of year, it was late September. Typically we see reptiles hatching late August/September is about the time they're normally born. So it was a young of the year, and they brought it in and dropped it off and it's been here ever since. That was not long after this Nature Center opened about 17 years ago.
>> Oh my gosh. So, okay, we know that two-headed snakes reptiles of anything in the wild they really don't survive that long. But as far as just a normal one-headed snake, what's the lifespan of this kind of rat snake?
>> In the wild would be very different from captivity. I don't know in the wild but I would say 5-10 years is probably typical for most of them. In captivity, 20-30 is not out of the question with no predators and very little disease and all of that. They tend to live longer. So maybe 30 years.
>> Oh my gosh, that's insane. That's a really long time.
So you are referring to this snake as a "she." So did you . . . I know, I actually did an episode about a year ago with Jeff Briggler our MDC state herpetologist; from what I remember he made it seem like it was pretty difficult to determine the gender of a snake. If you want to know for sure it was something you need to internally figure out. So tell us about that.
>> Yes, unlike mammals. Reptiles all their reproductive organs are in the inside. Looking at from the outside they all have the cloaca which is a shared duct for excretion and reproduction. So within that cloaca that is where they would either have their male reproductive parts or not. They will usually insert a probe and feel for those things, or squeeze in a way that they can reveal the gender that way.
>> So does this, have you named this snake?
>> We aren't in the habit of naming snakes here at the Cape Nature Center since we treat them as animal ambassadors. We colloquially call them "The Twins." They are the twins.
>> That's good enough. I like that. Alright, so now I'm getting into some more fun questions and I'm sure questions you commonly get with this snake. How do the heads interact with each other? Do they fight? Is one more dominant? Tell us more about that.
>> So, yes they do interact with one another. They are separate individuals. They are individual for about 4 inches and then they share the rest. They do fight. We have to be very careful when we feed them. Fight is [probably not the right word. Snakes don't see very well so mostly the way they interact with the world is through smells. So if one of the sisters has a little bit of mouse residue on her lips, the other one smells that and we've had instances where they will lock up. They are difficult to unlock. We put a drinking cup on one head at a time. We feed them. We let the mouse get past their junction so we don't have any train wrecks on the inside because their esophagus meets at a specific spot. Then we take turns. We think it is probably good for their mental well being. We probably don't have to, but we alternate feeding them one side to the other. They each get a chance to, you know, if you are a snake I imagine eating is the highlight of your life. So we give them an opportunity to try eating each.
We feed them. They usually eat between 5-10 small mice per feeding. We have to feed them small mice because where they conjoin there is a spinal deformity and it seems to effect . . . they are about 5 feet long at this point. They would be easily capable of eating full size mice if not rats. We feed them young mice because they have a hard time getting it past that spinal deformity. We feed them multiple little mice instead of one big.
They do fight over their food occasionally. They seem to have a difficult time agreeing which way to go. So you know, they have a hard time moving around and deciding because they are individuals.
>> That was going to be my next question. How do they slither and over? Do you find it is usually one who makes the decision more than the other? Is it always the same one that seems to decide where they move?
>> It seems to be. There's one head which seems a little bit less intellectual than the other. It seems like there is one that seems to be slightly more alert and the other one is a little bit less. The one that's more alert usually is kind of . . . It is almost like one is going in the direction of the body and the other one is off to the side rather than a fork moving forward if that makes sense.
>> It does. So one is just along for the ride?
>> More or less. The one I believe it is the left one seems to have a little bit more control.
>> Does the right one . . . when you feed that one does it seem to have other issues?
>> Yeah, the jaw is a little bit malformed on that one as well. It just seems a little less aware than the other one. It seems one is a little more cognitively with it.
>> Alright. So a few years ago, I think it was in 2019 it might have been before the pandemic. You guys celebrated a 16 year birthday party for the snake. Tell us about that.
>> Well, you know, everyone needs a sweet sixteen party so we decided why not our most popular mascot here in Cape Girardeau. So we threw a party. We had two headed snake related crafts, we had cupcakes with two headed snake gummies on top. And it was a lot of fun. I think we had 300 or 400 people show up that day to celebrate with us. When I'm out in about and people find out I work at the Cape Nature Center it is the first question almost always.
"Do you guys still have that two headed snake? "
>> So it is pretty well known down here in Cape Girardeau then.
>> Absolutely. In fact, I just did two print interviews one in England and one in France. So, internationally famous at this point.
>> Man! Well the twins. They are going global. That is insane.
Would you say the black rat snake is probably one of the most common snakes in Missouri that you may encounter?
>> Yeah I don't know about actual numbers but they're fairly visible. We see them around farms a lot. They are a pretty common snake to see in the woodlands. When you are out for a hike, it is not unusual to see them. But their desire to hang out around farms looking for mice, and occasionally chicken eggs and things. But probably one of the more common ones that people interact with for certain.
>> And again, snakes are a pretty big phobia. I looked up what that phobia was called and I tried to memorize it but now I can't. Do you happen to know the snake phobia?
>> I don't. It starts with an O I am sure.
>> It does, it starts with an O.
>> Ophi something.
>> Yes, Oph . . . well anyway, you can look it up. It is kind of actually fun to say. People they instantly see a snake. They get freaked out. They think the snake is going to bite them. I feel like this is another reminder for people. The venomous versus poisonous debate. I will let you take over and dispel that.
>> Yeah, so, you know, it is common for us to frequently hear people call a snake poisonous. They mean the right thing but we use the word venomous to describe an animal that bites and stings and injects a venom, a poison, into you. So a bee is venomous, a spider is venomous. And our snakes are venomous. Poisonous is a word we use to describe animals who if we were to eat them would become ill. So certain frogs and toads and things like that. They're poisonous.
Snakes are venomous because they bite and inject. Rat snakes are neither of those things. So you would not get sick eating a rat snake if you so choose, but you would also a bite from a rat snake is probably not fun but not a life threatening emergency in any way.
>> Well and another thing too that is important to remind people is that snakes are more afraid of us than we are afraid of them. They don't want to be around humans. They're smaller than us and a lot of times whenever people get bitten by a snake whether it is venomous or non venomous they are too close to it and usually trying to touch it or poke it.
They are in its space.
>> Yes, a vast majority of snake bites happen when people are either trying to kill the snake or harass it in some way. As you pointed out, we are 100-200 pound humans and they are a couple pounds. With all of their defenses, they still recognize that that is probably a losing battle. They feel the vibrations of our footsteps and they go the other way more often than not. A lot of the tall tales you hear about snakes chasing after people and this that and the other are mostly just tall tales. Every experience I have ever had with a snake in the wild, sometimes they will stunad stand their ground because they might feel backed into a corner or something. I had one make a few foot towards me to give me the message that I'm willing to fight if we have to. But ultmly all they want to do is turn around and go the other way. A snake has no desire to bite you.
>> So if anybody sees a snake or a black rate snake around their house that's actually a good thing to have around. Let's discuss some of the benefits of having a snake on your property.
>> Frequently I meet people when I do snake programs and I might have all kinds of different snakes around. You will hear folks from an older generation say, "I never kill black rat snakes, they are the ones that I leave. You know, dad would always kill this and that but would never let us kill rat Snakes." While they are definitely beneficial, so are all snakes.
But what they are doing is they are really taking care of Roden populations. Rat snakes seem relatively comfortable around people. Our farms, and our houses, and especially if you have property and timber around you, then you are probably overburdened with rodents around your property. Especially if you are keeping animal feed, pet feed, old vehicles and sheds on your property are all things that really attract rodents. When we get rodents, we've got rat snakes looking for them. Our snake eats 3 mice a week and that is probably about what they would eat in the wild about nine months of the year. So that's a lot of mice.
So you know, we feed three a week to our larger rat snake and you are talking about a huge benefit. One of our in naturalists here keeps chicken and she talks about paying the rat snake fee. It does eat some of her eggs and maybe an occasional chick or two, but she has very little problem with mice getting into her chicken coop who can also damage the baby chickens as well. It is about finding that balance because they deserve to be there just as much as we do.
>> We'll have more with Alex and The Twins right after the break.
>> This is Discover Nature Notes with Missouri Department of Conservation.
There are many myths about snakes. Old ones brought over from European immigrants and new ones started by settlers. One myth reported that certain snakes stole milk from cows. The truth was that the snakes were either to eat mice. These milk snakes are actually a kind of colorful king snake. Some people claim that snakes run in pairs. This is another myth. Snakes do get together briefly in the spring to mate. But since snakes are carnivores and compete for food such as mice, frogs and fish, they tend to be loners. Claims that snakes swallow their young when threatened, or that snakes cannot bite underwater are also false.
A common misconception is that snakes are slimy. While they may appear wet and slimy like fish, in fact snake skin is smooth and dry.
>> Discover more by signing up today at discovernaturenotes.com
>> The Missouri Department of Conservation - serving nature, and you.
>> Welcome back to Nature Boost where we are talking to naturalist Alex Holmes about the unique two-headed snake at the Cape Girardeau Nature Center, something that is extremely rare to encounter in the wild.
>> Tell me why it would be hard for any two-headed animal to survive in the wild.
>> Yeah, so the frequency. I've not found a definite number. But in human beings conjoining probably happens in roughly 1 in 100,000 births and it is probably a similar number in reptiles. So that is pretty often. You would expect to see more of them but they are easy targets. Because our twins have a difficult time moving around and a difficult time feeding, they are much more likely to be eaten by a hawk, skunk or racoon or any other predator that might be after them. So the fact that our twins were picked up and put into captivity after being you know alive for probably a matter of weeks is probably the only reason that they are still alive. They'd be an easy target not being able to agree on which way to go when running away from predators matters
It's why you don't see it ever, very rarely in adult animals in the wild.
>> It kind of reminds me of whenever people submit pictures of albino deer. Or there's another term for that.
>> Leucism. Leucism is not a complete lack of pigmentation, but a lack of dark pigmentation typically.
>> They're very cool to look at but again that makes them a big target for predation because they stand out so well.
>> Ablslty. If you are a fawn and you are supposed to look like dappled sunlight with your spots and you are bright white, that coyote is going to be just that more likely to find you.
>> Later, Alex allowed me to see how he and staff feed the twins. As he mentioned, they put a cup over one head as they offer the other a small mouse then once that head finishes eating, they will put a cup over it and they will feed the other head.
>> Essentially the two halves of their jaw work independently kind of like a conveyor belt to push the food down their throat. We give them a little bit of time to let that mouse go past the junction so we don't have a . . .
>> The junction where the two heads meet?
>> Exactly. So if you know, we don't want one mouse and another mouse to hit it at the same time because we worry that they might get stuck at least for a while. So we give them time to swallow it past that, it looks like it is going under it right now. Then we will try the other side.
>> Now I saw that the other head kind of popped out of the cup. Do they have a tendency to want to take the mouse from the other's mouth if they are not all the way in the cup?
>> Yeah, I. I don't know if they are even intentionally stealing it. Snakes see very poorly. They are smelling mouse and that's the trigger for them to get excited about eating. Right now they are sticking their tongues in and out, both of them trying to locate another one. They know that they usually get fed more than one at a time. So they've got that ready.
We will try to feed the other side and see what we get.
>> Now that they're fired up
What is interesting is that snakes can swallow big meals. They have almost like a snorkel built into the bottom of their mouth. Imagine trying to eat an entire cantaloupe at one time. Which is about what they are doing. You would have a hard time breathing while you do that. They actually have a tube that comes out from their lungs. Insinuated of being like ours in the back of our mouths, theirs is on the floor of their mouth so they are able to breathe while swallowing those big meals. It doesn't interfere the same way that it would for us.
>> Oh, I did not know that. Another way that they've evolved and adapted.
>> Absolutely yep.
>> That was really cool. I'm glad we got to see them both feed.
>> The tube is the same place that the tongue actually comes out of. It's like a little sheath. When they are sticking their tongue out smelling. I've been calling it smelling. They stick their tongue out and snakes tongues are forked because just like our binocular vision, they sort of have binocular smell. so they stick their tongue out and if the food smell is more on the right, they can sense that. They take their tongue in and rub it on essentially scent glands on the roof of their mouth. They are tasting whatever odor is in the air, pulling it into their mouth and then depositing those little molecules of smell into an organ on the top of their mouth. That is how they find their way around. Snakes don't hear the way we think of hearing. They don't have external ears.
So any sounds that they get are very muffled. What they are really doing is feeling the vibration in the ground. If I were holding the snake and talking, I am sure they can feel that. But you know shouting at a snake or something very well might not be something they can hear, or at least not well. It is all about smell, and vibration for snakes.
>> Feel it, feel it. Feel the vibrations. Remember that? Marky Mark.
>> I do. I do remember that.
>> Good vibrations. [Sing song voice.] I have one last question to ask you about this snake. Do you ever like hold it up and pretend that you're Britney Spears at the VMAs?
>> Not to this point though you've given me a great idea.
>> Halloween is coming up. You know? It's never too early to plan. This has been awesome thank you so much Alex. I really appreciate all the information.
>> Thank you for coming to visit and bringing everyone along with you.
>> If you're ever in the southeast region of Missouri or you happen to be traveling through, check out the Cape Girardeau Nature Center. The staff is so friendly and welcoming. They have a variety of fun and free programs that you can participate in and you can also say hi to the twins while you're there. Another big thanks to naturalist Alex Holmes for letting me visit.
Remember if you have any suggestions on topics you'd like to hear about on Nature Boost, let us know. You can submit suggestions on our website at Missouriconservation.org. I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation urging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors.