It was way back in the '60s, while I was working for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry as the staff naturalist that I had the opportunity to see—up-close-and in-my-hand—a real honest-to-goodness living, two-headed animal; that NW Garter snake pictured above. It is not Photoshopped!
I cannot recall the young man's name who brought it to the museum to share with me, but I shall be eternally grateful. The story that went with it, however, is indelibly imprinted in my old brain, and will probably be among the last to fade when I go out among the stars.
The young man walked up to me as blasé as could be and said, "Hi, Mr. Anderson, I saw this funny-looking snake struggling in the grass," as he dragged the snake out of a cardboard box, and went on, "I didn't know it had two heads, until I saw why it was struggling. A stalk of grass was between the two heads and it couldn't go forward."
And there you have it: Two heads are not really better than one.
Now here is my dumb reaction to this remarkable animal being dropped into my lap. Anyone who knows me, knows I love kids and want them to experience life science in a theater of their own terms, their own way.
So, with that philosophy, when the young man offered the snake to me, what did I do? I say to the kid, "Oh, no thanks. I'll photograph it, and then you take it home and place it in a big terrarium, set up a habitat just like where you found it and feed it crickets, frogs, worms and such, and document what happens." I didn't even have brains enough to name the container correctly: "Vivarium," or keep any record of the kid's name—or check to see what happened. The whole event just faded into the past.
Of course, I never heard from him again. Perhaps his mom, sister, brother, father or neighbor decided that poor freak-of-nature had no place in (or near) their home and flushed it down the toilet, or the dog ate it (after it ate the kid's homework).
For years, I've wanted to know what happened to that unique animal. Did it gain some understanding about chasing prey and adapt? Can you just see it swimming in a pond chasing tadpoles? Did one head become dominant, and the other atrophy? The questions are endless.
Two-headedness in the animal world is known by the scientific community as "polycephaly," a condition of a body having more than one head. It is a term derived from the Greek, poly, meaning "multiple" and cephalic, meaning "head."
The earliest known example of the discovery of polycephaly was in China, when a 120 million-year-old fossil of a two-headed hyphalosaurus, which in Greek means "submerged lizard," was found. Apparently, the ancient (normal) life-form is very common in the fossil beds of China.
Studies of myriad examples of the polycephaly phenomenon demonstrates a variation of everything from two bodies joined below with a lung on one side, heart on the other and one digestive system in one body or the other.
With humans, conjoined bodies, such as the Hensel Twins, only have one pair of arms and legs total. Each twin controls one side of the body's limbs. On the other hand, Syafitri, a two-headed female child born in 2006 in Indonesia, was given one name by their parents because the body only had one heart.
As far as I know, the closest museum around here to possess a two-headed anything on display is the Venice Beach Freakshow, 909 Ocean Front Walk, Los Angeles. According to some of the feedback, it's best to call (310-314-1808) before going for a visit to make sure the operators are there.
Now hear this! In-as-much as reptiles and amphibians are more prone to polycephaly, if you're at Suttle Lake, Prairie Farm, Camp Polk, Elk Lake, Crane Prairie—or any place with good snake habitat, please listen to your child when he or she shouts, "Hey! Look what I found! A two-headed snake!"
Please, even if it's a rattlesnake, don't kill it. Stay calm, keep your child, children or pet a safe distance from said snake and when you've calmed down, please call me.
My traveling phone is 541-480-3728. If I can lay my hands on said critter, I'll even buy you and your family a milk shake! Oh, yes, I even have a state permit to conduct such activities—while your cat does not.
Oh, if you happen to be at Prairie Farm or some other place where amphibians live in fear of snakes, and the "mud-bogging" screwballs are charging around in their 4-wheel vehicles tearing up the countryside, please call 911!