A two-headed rattlesnake might just be the last thing an electric worker expects to find during a home inspection, yet that's exactly what Rodney Kelso stumbled across last week near Forrest City, Arkansas.

According to a local media outlet, Kelso found the snake basking in the sun alongside two other normal-looking rattlesnakes, all a little less than a foot long. The animals were timber rattlesnakes, a species that inhabits the eastern and midwestern regions of the United States, including Arkansas. In that state, females usually give birth to around six babies in the fall, so it's likely that the three snakes Kelso discovered were siblings from the same litter, and had just been born. The assumption makes sense because two-headed snakes tend not to survive for very long in the wild.

The technical term for animals born with multiple heads is polycephaly, and polycephalic snakes do show up from time to time: they can be thought of as twins that did not completely develop and separate.

In conjoined snake twins such as this Arkansas timber rattlesnake, it's likely that each head has an independent and functioning brain. As you can likely imagine, two functioning brains sharing a single snake's body can make life difficult. An inability to completely coordinate movements makes these animals easy prey for predators like hawks.

After carefully capturing the two-headed rattlesnake, Kelso donated it to the Forrest L. Wood Crowley's Ridge Nature Center in Jonesboro. It was later transferred to Dr Lori Neuman-Lee, an assistant professor at Arkansas State University, because the unique animal may require some specialised care and attention.

For the time being, Dr Neuman-Lee is keeping a close eye on the young rattler as it gets used to its new surroundings. Although she's not planning to use the snake in any formal experiments, she says she'll continue to monitor its behaviour and make note of anything unusual.

The unique reptile has scientific value, and could help scientists to understand more about polycephalic animals.

"Already it has been fascinating to watch as the left head has started to become more dominant and now leads the right head ... When this snake passes away, we will do dissections to understand its internal structure, and we may be able to examine how development occurred," she says.

Two-headed snakes might not survive long in the wild, but what about one that's protected from predators and given a lot of care and attention? Dr Neuman-Lee hopes her new charge has a long future ahead as an ambassador for its species, helping to teach others about snakes and the vital ecological roles they play in Arkansas and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the big question for now is how Dr Neuman-Lee intends to feed the two-headed rattler. Because the snake's internal anatomy is currently a mystery, she's approaching its care with an open mind.

"We don't know which head will want to eat – but we are going to try and offer [mice] to the more dominant (left) head first," she says. "Unfortunately, we don't know the internal structure of the snake, so we don't know if there is just one stomach, and if only one oesophagus leads to the stomach and digestive tract. We are going to do the best we can to let the snake make decisions! In the meantime, we will be giving him water and warmth so that he can adjust to his new environment."

Although timber rattlesnakes are found throughout much of the United States, there is still a lot left to learn about them, in part because detailed studies can take decades. At the same time, this imperilled species is threatened by the loss of forested habitats and winter dens, humans who want to kill them, and now, even a fungus.

This two-headed baby, which was probably doomed if left to fend for itself, was lucky to have found a group of people who recognised how special these animals can be. 



Top header image: MTSOfan/Flickr