Reptile experts Dave Schneider and Dave Burkett have noticed something strange and remarkable. They are carrying out potentially dangerous research that involves photographing baby reptiles. This is a task that many people would fear, of course, but for these guys, it’s just an ordinary part of their jobs. Yet today, as the zoologists stare at their venomous subjects, they notice that one of them has a bizarre deformity – one that makes it twice as deadly.
And Schneider and Burkett would know. Part of the work that Herpetological Associates does in New Jersey involves assessing the presence of venomous snakes on building sites. Naturally, then, the group’s employees undergo extensive training that allows them to safely capture potentially dangerous serpents. And the northern copperhead and the timber rattlesnake are of particular interest to the organization. That’s what the pair were working with on this strange day.
The timber rattlesnake can be found throughout the east of North America. In fact, virtually no other kind of rattlesnake lives in the wild near humans in the U.S.’ northeastern regions – where New Jersey is of course located. That said, the creature is endangered in the state as well as in Massachusetts and Vermont. It’s also pretty scary.
Scary by nature
Yes, the timber rattlesnake has somewhat of a frightful reputation. Not only can examples of the species grow up to 60 inches in length, but they also possess large fangs. And, most terrifyingly of all, this snake can be very harmful to humans. Its venom can bring about both internal bleeding and muscle cell death. So when faced with a creature possibly twice as dangerous, the two experts were undoubtedly wary.
After all, snake venom is not something to laugh about. Take the venom of Northern copperheads, for instance. Confined to the east of North America, these snakes are usually found where trees are plentiful. And while the serpents are smaller than timber rattlesnakes, their venom is just as dangerous. And a bite from a Northern copperhead could cause tissue damage, excruciating pain and nausea. Pretty nasty, right?
Scared but prepared
But given their familiarity with highly venomous snake species, Herpetological Associates members likely aren’t fazed by much that they see in the field. Yet in August 2019 two people from the organization were stopped in their tracks when they stumbled across the strange mutant reptile in New Jersey.
New Jersey snakes
It was at that time that Schneider – who is Herpetological Associates’ Northern New Jersey regional manager – and his fellow scientist Burkett were auditing Pine Barrens, NJ. Often referred to as The Pines, this swathe of coastal plain contains dense woodland and covers numerous counties in the far south of the state.
And Burkett explained the circumstances surrounding his and Schneider’s unsettling discovery in an August 2019 interview with Long Beach Island magazine The Sandpaper. He revealed, for instance, that the land the pair were looking at was often used by female snakes to birth their young – naturally making it a location of interest for herpetologists.
“We were out surveying a certain area where we know that rattlesnakes give birth,” Burkett told The Sandpaper. “It’s an area where female snakes hang out, get sun and let the embryos incubate. They have live young in late August, [and] the young usually stay by the mother.”
More specifically, Burkett’s job involves observing the endangered animals and plants in an area; that way, Herpetological Associates’ clients can proceed with their projects with minimal impact on the environment. But even though the scientist had spent years observing rattlesnakes, neither he nor Schneider had ever seen a serpent quite like this one before.
Mutant in the ranks
Yet it appears that Burkett didn’t notice the snake’s deformity at first. Instead, he dutifully carried out his work, snapping pictures of the young reptile on his camera. When the creature moved to take shelter, however, Burkett spotted that it was, in fact, very different from other snakes of its kind. And, naturally, he went on to bring the unusual feature to the attention of his coworker.
Yet while the disfigured creature in question appeared to be healthy, Schneider and Burkett still feared for the reptile’s future. Owing to its anomaly, you see, the snake would find it more difficult to make its way in the wild. As a consequence, then, the Herpetological Associates employees opted to take the potentially dangerous animal into captivity.
Search and rescue
But before Schneider and Burkett could rescue the mutant reptile, they first needed permission to move it. Fortunately, as Burkett told The Sandpaper, he possesses a special permit. The herpetologist added, “Under the endangered species laws, it’s illegal to handle or harass any endangered reptiles or amphibians without that [permit].”
And Herpetological Associates CEO Bob Zappalorti later defended Schneider and Burkett’s decision to remove the deformed snake. “It probably wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild,” he told NJ.com in September 2019. “As it was crawling, there’s a chance it could have gotten snagged on something, leaving it open to be eaten by predators.”
Do the right thing
Herpetological Associates believed that it had done the right thing by taking the snake in. The scientific organization will also continue to study the curiosity as it grows – although there’s no way of telling how long it will survive.
And Schneider and Burkett haven’t been the only ones to come across such a bizarre, mutated animal. In May 2019 a three-eyed snake living in the Australian wilderness achieved viral fame after it had previously been found on a highway. Sadly, though, the creature passed away a matter of weeks later – possibly as a result of its disfigurement.
The reptile that Schneider and Burkett had discovered, though, was a baby timber rattlesnake. So it was capable of administering a nasty and venomous bite. And despite its relatively young age, the specimen was potentially twice as dangerous as others of its species, too.
Even as herpetologists, Schneider and Burkett may have been surprised at the snake. Herpetology itself is the analysis of cold-blooded reptiles, amphibians and caecilians. And while such creatures may seem very much removed from us humans, scientists believe that we have much to learn from them.
For example, studying these animals can provide us with unique insights into the state of our planet. How? Well, these creatures can sense subtle transformations in their environments, and as a result, they can give clear warnings that an ecological shift is underway. Their venom – though terrifying – could be useful, too.
Certain venoms that are emitted by amphibians and reptiles can have medicinal applications. Yes, some kinds of snake venom are used, for example, to prevent blood clots in patients who have suffered heart attacks or strokes. Given that there’s a lot to gain from investigating these animals, then, it’s perhaps no surprise that herpetology has many champions.
And naturally, Herpetological Associates is among those who promote the discipline. The organization was founded in 1977 and specializes in threatened and endangered animal and plant species and their respective habitats. Members of the Herpetological Associates team also work to ensure the wellbeing of wildlife in forests, parks and suburbs.
Here to help
Herpetological Associates also teams up with different groups, helping its clients to complete their projects without unduly affecting the environment. To do so, specialists liaise with state and federal authorities to acquire conservation permits. They also assess natural habitats and take stock of wildlife and plant populations.
New Jersey shore
Herpetological Associates’ offices are spread out across the U.S. – in Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In particular, the team in the Garden State focuses their efforts on the regional Coastal Area Facility Review Act and assist clients with their submissions to various environmental agencies – including the New Jersey Pinelands Commission.
Menace to society
So, why was the snake such a menace? Well, that’s because it had not one but two heads. And it’s little wonder that the oddity gave Burkett quite a shock when he first spotted it. “I just called to Dave Schneider and said, ‘Holy cow. This thing has two heads,’” he told The Sandpaper.
What’s more, Burkett and Schneider initially questioned what they thought they’d witnessed – and understandably so. “We couldn’t see the snake at that point,” Burkett explained. “So I checked the shots on my camera and there it was – two heads.”
Then, upon further investigation, Burkett and Schneider discovered that both of the snake’s heads worked independently. The around 10-inch-long specimen also sported two pairs of working eyes as well as a couple of forked tongues. As of yet, though, scientists haven’t determined the gender of the serpent.
“Both tongues are flicking independently of each other, so [the snake’s] got two brains,” Schneider told KYW-TV in September 2019. “When it moves around, you’ll see that one head goes one way and the other. And [the heads are] kind of fighting each other and stiffen up, and then one will decide to go with the better half. So, it’s pretty interesting.”
That being said, the snake did have one head that seemed to be more assertive than the other. In September 2019 Schneider explained to ABC News, “It appears the head on the right side is the more dominant one… But every once in a while, the other head will want to go in a different direction.”
What’s in a name
And the snake received a very appropriate name – one that not only honored its rare feature, but also the two men who’d found it and brought it into the care of Herpetological Associates. The animal became known as Double Dave in a tribute of sorts to Burkett and Schneider.
It turns out, too, that Double Dave isn’t the first snake to have been born with a pair of heads. The condition that the animal possesses is referred to as polycephaly, and it seems to occur when an embryo divides into two but doesn’t entirely separate.
In his interview with NJ.com, Zappalorti also explained how polycephaly may have affected Double Dave. He said, “[The snake] probably was meant to be a twin, and it mutated, and the female gave birth to this abnormal baby.” Addressing the rarity of the snake’s deformation, Zappalorti added, “It’s the only one ever found in New Jersey.”
In fact, across the world, two-headed creatures regularly crop up in various myths and legends, where they are usually believed to be a sign of impending disaster. In real life, by contrast, animals with two heads are relatively uncommon, occurring in just one in every 100,000 births outside of captivity.
And yet two-headed snakes seem to be found fairly frequently. Indeed, just weeks before Double Dave hit the headlines, another two-headed serpent had been photographed in Bali. In 2018 a fellow bicephalic snake named Tom and Jerry also traveled to Switzerland to feature in the Reptile Expo.
Put their heads together
However, contrary to the popular phrase, two heads aren’t usually better than one when it comes to snakes. You see, even simple decisions – such as which way to slither, for example – can become a clash of wills. And it’s not unheard of, either, for bicephalic animals to fight themselves for food.
Two heads better than one?
Two-headed snakes can become easy prey for predators, and this made the chances of Double Dave surviving into adulthood in the wild extremely slim. That’s why Herpetological Associates had decided to round up the otherworldly creature. “We’ll take care of it,” Schneider was quoted as saying in a September 2019 report by The Guardian.
Yet even in captivity, two-headed snakes can be difficult to care for – something that Cooper Sallade knows all too well. Pictures that the viper breeder had taken of a bicephalic copperhead went viral in 2018, and owing to the furor surrounding the mutant creature, Sallade had therefore felt obliged to care for it as best he could.
“Since the snake had such an incomprehensible amount of media attention, there was a lot of pressure on me to keep that thing alive,” Sallade told Wired in June 2019. In a bid to prolong the creature’s life, then, Sallade had to force it to eat. But even with his best efforts, there was no saving the serpent; sadly, it passed away months later.
Death pays a visit
And in the end, Sallade felt that death was the kinder outcome for the animal. “If it had been a snake that was born in my collection, I wouldn’t have told anybody about it,” he informed Wired. “Honestly, I would probably have euthanized it myself, because it was so hard for the snake – just being alive.”
Meanwhile, several weeks into its stay with the folk at Herpetological Associates, Double Dave was still going strong. The creature seemed to be healthy, in fact, and its two heads were getting along just fine. Nevertheless, Schneider and his co-workers were eager to scan the snake to determine whether its digestive system was in good working order.
All’s well that ends well
And if this part of Double Dave’s insides is found to be in good health, it will reassure the snake’s carers that it can receive nourishment and can therefore thrive. In fact, the future could still be bright for the serpent, as two-headed snakes can apparently survive for more than 15 years when reared in captivity.
More than 1,000 miles further south, however, something equally as alarming was discovered in a Florida basement. And it’s certainly not something you’d want in your home, either – that is, unless you were prepared to lock the door and throw away the key for good.
As the two men approached the beast in front of them, they knew they were in a dangerous situation. The predator was huge, measuring up at 16 feet long and tipping the scales at around 165 pounds – making it of a size rarely seen before. And, even more terrifyingly, it appeared that the intruder was hiding something in the shadows.
The beast wasn’t the type of house guest to be typically found in this part of the world, either. The pair who had discovered the interloper knew, then, that they would need expert help in removing it. But after a specialist came to the location, he, too, may have been taken back. Even with his professional experience, he had rarely seen anything quite like this before.
What’s more, the predator in question is not just deadly to humans; it’s also a recognized threat to local wildlife. Members of its species have been known to devour such creatures as possums, rabbits, bobcats and deer, for example. And, alarmingly, a critter this size has the ability to tackle prey larger than even that. On one occasion, another of its kind was spotted feasting on a 7-foot-long alligator.
The two men first encountered this lethal specimen in July 2019 beneath a home on an island in Florida’s Everglades. And as they weren’t best-equipped to deal with the intruder, they ultimately decided to call in local conservationist Ron Bergeron, whose work has earned him the moniker “Alligator Ron.” It should be known, though, that the discovery had nothing to do with that particular type of reptile.
This may come as a surprise, as the Everglades is known for its gators. Located in the south of Florida, the unique national park — the largest of its kind in the U.S. — is easily accessible from the busy urban sprawl of Miami. A 60-minute car journey is all that separates the concrete jungle from the extraordinary biodiversity of this stunning ecosystem.
The Everglades National Park covers an expansive 1.5 million acres, and airboat expeditions are offered to the area’s one million or so annual tourists. These thrilling rides dash through the swamps at nearly 60 miles per hour, giving passengers an up-close view of the fascinating wildlife and lush vegetation.
And as the biggest subtropical habitat in the country, the Everglades naturally hosts an extensive array of animals. Its mangroves and grass marshes, for example, are home to varieties of snakes and wading birds as well as alligators. For many decades, though, the wetlands here were deemed surplus to developers’ requirements, meaning many swamps were ultimately drained to make way for roads, farmland and property.
As a result, Florida residents may share the land with the area’s wilder inhabitants. Visitors can see these creatures, too; they may get a glimpse of manatees swimming in the waters, for instance, or bobcats and white-tailed deer roaming the pastures. Those with more patience and a keen eye may even spot members of more threatened species such as the Florida panther or the American crocodile.
Many of the over 350 bird species native to the area are also incredibly rare. The large but graceful wood stork has been deemed by the U.S. government as endangered, for example. This wading bird casts an elegant silhouette and is beloved of both bird watchers and nature photographers.
Also registered on the threatened or endangered lists are the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, the Everglades snail kite and the red-cockaded woodpecker. Birds, however, are not known to be a threat to humans. So, what lurks in the Florida swamps that may pose a real danger to any person in the vicinity?
Well, although the West Indian manatee is perhaps the most distinctive Everglades resident, the placid mammal is more a gentle giant than a menace. These animals lumber softly through the water and may seek out humans both for company and a source of warmth. Manatees also mostly take their nourishment from aquatic plants.
In fact, humans are much more of a threat to the manatee than they are to us, as these sea creatures are so leisurely in their movements that they can prove vulnerable to passing dangers. For instance, they’re sometimes too slow to avoid speeding boats, which can maim or kill any animal in their paths.
And while the manatee is also on the endangered species list, arguably the rarest creature to be found in the Everglades is the Florida panther. These wild cats were once desirable trophies for hunters – meaning, unfortunately, that they were almost wiped out entirely. Indeed, conservationists believe that fewer than 100 of these animals now remain in their natural habitat.
Yet although humans may pose more of a threat to both the Florida panther and the manatee than they do to us, the same cannot be said of some of the other Everglades residents. The Florida black bear, for instance, is considered one of the most dangerous animals in the state; as it, too, is endangered, however, members of the species are seldom spotted in the national park.
Many visitors to the Everglades may also be unaware that its waters may host sharks. Yes, while these fearsome predators usually prefer the saltwater of the ocean, there are some varieties – such as lemon sharks and blacktip sharks – whose body functions can adapt to the fresh waters of Florida’s swamps. And, unfortunately, they include one of the most dangerous species around.
We’re talking about the aggressive bull shark, which can sometimes be seen patrolling the Everglades’ channels as well as the mouths of rivers and cruise coastlines in search of prey. However, while these beasts are known to ambush humans, they typically prefer to feed on much tinier animals.
Elsewhere in the Everglades’ water, certain types of fish can pose a threat to humans. Indeed, although barracudas very rarely attack people, they can sometimes be attracted by anything particularly eye-catching — such as jewelry — that swimmers may be wearing. This can occasionally provoke the fish into assuming that there is prey – like the silvery fish they feed upon – in the water. Marlins, meanwhile, are more of a danger to fishermen in the area.
Some underwater attacks may come completely by surprise, too. For instance, while the needlefish may seem relatively unassuming – typically coming in at around a foot in length and less than a pound in weight – its razor-sharp mouth is nevertheless a hazard. And although this creature is not known as a human predator, it’s still capable of causing damage.
Needlefish usually travel close to the surface of bodies of water near the coast where it’s warm. However, if they’re fleeing predators or chasing their prey, they may “take flight” for brief periods and rise to the top. Anything that gets in the needlefish’s way, then, may just feel how sharp its mouth is.
Then there’s the box jellyfish, as the ocean’s most venomous inhabitant is also known to reside in the Everglades’ channels. There are between 20 and 30 varieties of this creature, which can measure anything from under an inch to ten feet. Regardless of the box jellyfish’s size, though, it should definitely be avoided, as victims can die after experiencing the pain of its sting alone.
And perhaps the most famous Everglades predator is the alligator. The reptile can easily be confused with the crocodile, of course, although there is an easy way to tell them apart. Simply put, an alligator has a round, broad nose; the same feature on a crocodile, however, comes to a point. Alligators are largely more common across the whole of Florida, while crocodiles live only in the most southerly regions of the state.
Crocodiles can be just as vicious as alligators, too, although the American variety is less aggressive than many of its counterparts from around the world. And while alligators tend to strike only when they feel threatened, they should nevertheless be avoided as well.
Yet Bergeron faced none of these animals beneath the Florida house; in fact, the creature he discovered in the basement was itself a threat to much of the Everglades’ native wildlife. It was a breed of snake called a Burmese python — and one of its kind had once been reported to have swallowed an alligator whole.
At 165 pounds and around 16 feet long, the python was the second largest that Bergeron had ever seen. In fact, from nose to tail, the snake was merely a foot away from being the longest ever measured in the state. Perhaps most terrifyingly of all, though, the female predator was protecting a nest of at least 50 eggs.
And this frightening reptile was found underneath a house in Broward County that sits four miles from Alligator Alley. Alligator Alley is an 80-mile stretch of highway that dissects the Everglades National Park between Fort Lauderdale and Naples, and as its name suggests it’s a prime location for gator spotters. The native wildlife in the area is under threat, however, from the Burmese python.
The Burmese python typically has a placid nature, and combined with the attractive designs that appear on its skin, this makes the species a favorite among snake owners. But these snakes can grow quickly and can get incredibly large. Then, when they become too much for their handlers, they can become aggressive. Attacks, then, are not unheard of, and some have been fatal.
The snake’s diet consists purely of meat, with birds and small mammals primarily featuring on the menu. As the python’s vision isn’t too good, however, it relies on heat receptors lining its jaws and chemical sensors on its tongue to close in on its prey. And killing for the Burmese python is an act of brute strength.
You see, the Burmese python is a constrictor, meaning it will wrap its body around its chosen victim after having gripped it between its teeth. Then the snake will crush the breath out of its prey until it’s dead. And as the Burmese python’s jaws are so flexible, it’s able to gobble its meal up in a single piece.
Young Burmese pythons are frequently found in trees, although slivering up trunks become more awkward after they have matured. As these creatures can come in at around 23 feet and 200 pounds, however, they can practically be the size of a tree themselves. In fact, these snakes have been described as growing to as thick as a telephone pole.
So, all of this makes the Burmese python one of the biggest — and deadliest — snakes in the world. Even more alarmingly, the snake is an expert swimmer capable of remaining underwater for half an hour before coming up for air. But while this may make the Everglades’ swampland fertile ground for the species to thrive, there’s a problem.
As you may have already assumed, Burmese pythons are native to Southeast Asia rather than the wetlands of the Florida Everglades. And while these reptiles were first introduced to the area over two decades ago when snake enthusiasts snapped them up, members of the species didn’t always work well as domestic animals.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, some of these pets then went on to escape into the wild, while others were deliberately released. As a result, the Burmese python is now considered an invasive species without any natural predators to keep the population in check. And owing to the snake’s appetite for native mammals such as limpkins, wood storks and Key Largo woodrats, fauna in the area is now in considerable peril.
In 2019 Bergeron explained to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, “The Burmese python poses a significant threat to the Florida Everglades by disrupting the natural food chain.” But the conservationist’s actions prevented an influx of this apex predator. As you’ll recall, the snake in the Broward County home was female and guarding a nest of around 50 eggs.
And, worryingly, a number of the eggs were actually cracking open as Bergeron surveyed the nest site. Fortunately, though, the specialist was able to relocate both these and the snake guarding them. “With good fortune, we were able to find a large female and remove her and an entire nest of up to 50 baby snakes, which would have continued killing off our precious habitat,” Bergeron continued to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. In fact, the hunting of Burmese pythons in the Everglades is actively encouraged.
No license is required to hunt Burmese pythons, nor are there are no restrictions on when they may be pursued. Some have even turned the tracking of these snakes into a sport, with the annual Python Challenge encouraging members of the public to capture as many of the slithery pests as possible.
Local wildlife trapper Mike Kimmel – a self-avowed “python cowboy” – has proved himself particularly accomplished at ridding the area of the snakes, having captured eight of the invasive species during the 2020 Python Challenge. Yet while this total accounts for a tenth of the number of snakes hunted down in the competition that year, it’s made scarcely a dent in a population estimated to be in the tens of thousands in the Everglades.
Kimmel found the going hard, too. In a January 2020 Instagram post, he wrote, “It was not an easy win, that’s for sure. I ran into all kinds of obstacles. I hunted ten days straight, covering thousands of miles of levees and woods [and] sleeping in the swamp when not hunting. [I] kept my nose to the grindstone, and I can proudly say I gave it my all.” That said, the incentive to track down these snakes can be huge.
Indeed, those who hunt for a living can expect a return of a few hundred dollars in government payouts for every python captured. Then, once the snakes are euthanized, they can be used in other ways. For instance, Kimmel gives snake meat to the wild hogs on his property. Speaking of his spoils to The Guardian, the trapper added, “It’s good money; a large snake can be worth about $1,000 to me.”
The Burmese python’s skin can also be used to manufacture luxury goods such as purses, boots and wallets. Typically, these reptiles have tan-colored outsides that feature dark patchwork similar to that of a giraffe. And while these markings are non-uniform, they nevertheless appear to slot together – much like elements of a jigsaw.
So, while the Python Challenge may not be completely ridding the Everglades and its surroundings of these creatures, it may help. After all, conservationists have spent years attempting to gain control over the python population in Florida – even going so far as to employ chanting snake charmers from India. And as research has shown that a rise in python numbers has coincided with a significant decline in wildlife native to the Everglades, winning the battle against the snakes may be crucial in keeping this part of the state at its best.