At two-and-a-half, she’s not quite like others her age. Noticeably small, she’s less than half the size of her peers and has an odd way of moving, bobbing from side to side as though she doesn’t know where to go.
But it’s her second head that’s the most notable difference.
Named after one of three Greek Gorgons with poisonous snakes in place of hair, Medusa, the gold dust motley corn snake may not turn gazers to stone, but she is a head-turner.
Owned by business partners Darcie Stiller and Amber Quiring, Medusa has been with the pair since birth. However, she’s been living in their downtown pet shop, the Reptile Room, since it opened Sept. 1.
”Amber was incredibly excited about the two heads,” says Stiller, recalling the day Medusa was born. “But I was a bit more reserved,” she continues. “I had seen this once before, and that one only lived three days out of egg. I got excited when she hit six months, I really believed she would survive. She’s like one in a million.”
Medusa’s condition is called dicephalism, which is a form of polycephaly: the condition of having more than one head.
“To put it simply, (she’s) an example of conjoined twins,” explains Dr. Mike Geen, a veterinarian at Coastal Rivers Pet Hospital. “Within a single fertilized egg, the cells undergo repeated divisions (that) would normally lead to two separate embryos, (or) identical twins. If the timing of cell division is off, it can lead to a conjoined twin.”
Dicephalic reptiles are rare, Geen continues, but they’re more commonly reported than in mammals and birds, particularly with snakes, turtles, and tortoises. He says anecdotal estimates range from 1 in every 1,000-10,000 captive snakes being born or hatching with two heads.
Neurologically speaking, a snake brain is somewhat rudimentary, meaning it’s unlikely Medusa would’ve survived had she been born in the wild.
“Her jaw doesn’t open like a normal snake’s would,” Stiller adds. “Her bottom jaw can’t separate (horizontally) because the other head’s there.” And as such, Medusa’s feed can never be increased in size. “Normally you increase the prey size once there’s no food lump anymore, but we can’t do that with her. Chronologically, she’s an adult, but she’s being fed on a baby schedule ,” explains Stiller as she cradles Medusa in her hands.
Dr. Geen agrees. “Having two-heads means two-brains competing to control one body, which would make it very difficult to co-ordinate normal movement required for hunting, and escaping and would likely predispose the snake to being taken by a predator.”
The average life span of a wild corn snake is only about eight years, but, snakes born in captivity can live into their late teens, or 20s. “I read a story about a conjoined snake that not only bred several healthy clutches, but lived until she was more than 18,” adds Quiring.
“As long as there are no developmental abnormalities to the internal organs,” says Geen, “two-headed reptiles can live a happy life.”
And that’s exactly what Stiller and Quiring have in store for their two-headed snake. While Medusa’s a definite attraction, spending her days wowing customers and passers by, Medusa has a life-long home. “We’ll never sell her, she’ll stay with us forever,” says Stiller.