Two-headed snake donated to Tech, now faces challenges in survival

The two-headed snake donated to the Biology department in October made its first live appearance to the Cookeville community Homecoming weekend, but still faces multiple threats to survival.

Paul Carver of Clarksville, Tenn., donated the two-headed baby king snake to Tech’s Biology department after discovering the snake in his backyard. The snake made statewide news coverage as Carver told reporters at WSMV Nashville that he was “worried about which head was going to bite me.”

It was originally taken to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Officer Dale Grandstaff who declared the snake’s two separate heads attached to the same eight-inch body have fully functioning brains and forked tongues.

Since the snake arrived at Tech in October, it has been residing in Biology Professor Daniel Combs’ office in Pennebaker Hall. Combs has kept the serpent under close personal watch to document the snake’s behavior as well as to ensure minimal human contact.

“Sometimes if you mess with them too much, they just won’t eat and you can starve them to death,” Combs said. “I did get it to eat once about two-and-a-half weeks ago, but it hasn’t shown any interest in eating since then.”

Combs fed the snake a tiny lizard for its first meal at Tech, noting that the right head was the only head showing any interest in eating. The left head is described by Combs as “the subordinate head,” since the head on the right is slightly bigger and straighter.

“It’s clear the heads are independent of each other,” Combs said. “It’s sort of indecisive.”

While the department houses several other snakes, including several ball pythons, an eight-foot boa constrictor, two Kenyan sand boas, and other classifications of king snakes, this particular reptile is the most unique to study.

“Hopefully we can learn how this mutation affects the development of the snake and how we can handle different animals in the future that have this type of mutation,” Elisa Tanksley, sophomore conservation biology major, said.        

Combs added, “Basically what we’re wanting to do with it is put it as part of our snake collection. If it was a normal snake I’d probably just let it go if it wasn’t eating, but of course we can’t let this one go—he wouldn’t survive in the wild anyway.”

Even though in captivity now, the snake faces many other obstacles for survival. A common abnormality in two-headed animals is a small kink in the neck where the two spines of the heads join together. This bend in the neck can cause lodging of food, disrupting the digestive system.

Luckily, this particular two-headed creature showed no complications    at the bend in the neck and was successfully able to completely digest and pass the meal.

The popularity of the snake has also posed complications, as excessive human contact may deter it from eating.

“I’ve pretty much left him alone,” Combs said. “I’ve had a lot of experience with small snakes and generally what I’ve found is the more you leave them alone, the better chance you have that they’ll eat.”

Combs says that a number of people have called in to make recommendations about how to care for the reptile, including a Harvard adjunct who has published several works on two-headed snakes.

“I’m going to do everything I can to keep it alive,” Combs said. “It’s still really healthy right now, but at the same time, it’s reached a point where I’m concerned about it again.”

Combs has shown eagerness to protect the snake not only by housing it in his own office, but also by considering drastic measures to provide it food.

Since the snake has a particular taste for lizards, Combs has contemplated making a trip to South Florida in order to catch small anole lizards as prey, since a lizard population is not readily available in this region.

“It’s become such a celebrity that I don’t want it to die under my watch, ” Combs said. “I’m sure there are a lot of people out there with more experience in raising two-headed snakes, but at the same time I’m not a complete novice.”

It’s not certain whether the snake will live or not, even though Combs has extended experience in raising very small snakes to adulthood.

“If the snake dies, I think it would be a major loss to students who are interested in herpetology,” Tanksley said. “Plus, the department has been doing so well with it so far.”

Regardless of the snake’s unknown future, Combs has named the snake’s separate heads “Dumb and Dumber,” after the 1994 film starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels.

“He’ll probably need another name as he becomes a bigger celebrity,” Combs said. But for now, Dumb is the right head, and Dumber is the left.