In Pine Barrens, New Jersey, reptile experts Dave Schneider and Dave Burkett are carrying out some valuable – if potentially dangerous – research. As part of his work, you see, Burnett is photographing some baby rattlesnakes – a task that many people would fear. But as the zoologist stares through his lens, he notices something both strange and remarkable: one of his venomous subjects has a terrifying deformity.
And even as herpetologists, Schneider and Burkett may have been surprised at what they saw. Herpetology itself is the analysis of cold-blooded tetrapods – namely reptiles, amphibians and caecilians. Indeed, while such creatures may seem very much removed from us humans, scientists nevertheless 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 are able to sense subtle transformations in their environments, and as a result they can give clear warnings that an ecological shift is underway.
In addition, certain poisons that are emitted by amphibians and reptiles can have medicinal applications. 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.
Furthermore, Herpetological Associates teams up with different groups, helping its clients to complete their projects without unduly affecting the environment. In order 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.
Herpetological Associates’ offices are spread out across the U.S., too, being situated 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.
Part of the work that Herpetological Associates does in New Jersey, moreover, involves assessing the presence of poisonous snakes on building sites. Naturally, then, the group’s employees undergo extensive training that allows them to safely capture dangerous serpents. And the northern copperhead and the timber rattlesnake are of particular interest to the organization.
The timber rattlesnake can be found throughout the east of North America. In fact, no other kinds of rattlesnake live in the wild 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 doesn’t help, either, that the timber rattlesnake has somewhat of a frightful reputation. You see, 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 poisonous, with its venom able to bring about both internal bleeding and muscle cell death.
Northern copperheads are pretty fearsome, too. Confined to the east of North America, they’re usually found where trees are plentiful. And while these serpents are smaller than timber rattlesnakes, their venom is just as dangerous. A bite from a northern copperhead could cause tissue damage, excruciating pain and nausea.
So, given their familiarity with highly venomous snake species, Herpetological Associates members aren’t likely fazed by much that they see in the field. Nonetheless, in August 2019, two people from the organization were stopped in their tracks when they stumbled across a strange mutant reptile in New Jersey.
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, the 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 to the environment. But while the scientist had therefore spent years observing rattlesnakes, neither he nor Schneider had ever seen a serpent quite like this one before.
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 sporting a major abnormality. And, naturally, he went on to bring the strange feature to the attention of his coworker.
Furthermore, although 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 dangerous animal into captivity.
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.”
With that in mind, 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 animal. Indeed, 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 few months later as a result of its disfigurement.
The reptile that Schneider and Burkett had discovered, meanwhile, was a baby timber rattlesnake. As such, then, 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.
So, why was the snake such a menace? Well, that’s because it had not one but two heads. And it’s little surprise that the oddity gave Burkett quite a surprise 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 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.”
And the snake received a very appropriate name – one that not only honored its strange 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 a similar phenomenon is believed to occur with conjoined twins. In essence, conjoined twins are formed when an embryo splits 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 rare, occurring in just one in every 100,000 births in the wild.
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. And in 2018 a bicephalic snake named Tom and Jerry traveled from California to Switzerland to feature in the Reptile Expo.
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.
In addition, 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.
But 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.
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. Even so, Schneider and his co-workers were eager to scan the snake to determine whether its digestive system was fully formed.
And if Double Dave’s digestive system is found to be in good health, this 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.