The waters of the Pacific Ocean are pretty warm right now thanks to El Niño, and the balmy conditions are sending plenty of tropical species north: hammerhead sharks, tropical fish, and the venomous yellow-bellied sea snake.
On Thursday, Ann Iker was on the beach in Southern California when a fellow beachgoer warned her about a snake. As it slithered its way back into the ocean, they googled it — and discovered it was deadly, ABC News reported.
Friday morning, surfer Bob Forbes saw what was likely the same yellow-bellied sea snake on the beach in the same area. Two feet long, its top a dark brown and its bottom a bright yellow, Forbes said it looked sick.
“It looked lethargic when I approached. I touched it lightly and it started to move. I didn’t want some young kid not knowing what it was… pick it up and possibly get injured.”
— US Fish and Wildlife (@USFWS) October 18, 2015
So he picked it up himself — a dangerous move, since people only get bit by one when they handle one — put it in a bucket of water, and brought it home to prevent someone else from running into the animal.
He called a few agencies to pick it up, but when one finally arrived — Greg Pauly, herpetology curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County — it had died.
The creature spends its whole life in the ocean, so if it had washed ashore a California beach, it was likely sick or injured to begin with, the Los Angeles Times added. But experts are warning that where there’s one yellow-bellied sea snake, there’s bound to be more.
In fact, Pauly was expecting to see one, though he told CNN he was surprised it washed up so far north.
“We were expecting this. It’s a rare event, but it was also somewhat predictable given that we are currently experiencing a fairly dramatic El Niño year.”
The last time the species was seen in California was during another El Niño in the early 1980s. The animal lives in tropical waters near Baja California and Central America, and this is the farthest north one of them is ever recorded to have traveled along the Pacific coast.
Usually, the Pacific Ocean is far too cold for the yellow-bellied sea snake, but El Niño is bringing warm water to the east along the Equator. Usually, the wind pushes this water toward Indonesia and Australia, but during this weather event, the wind reverses direction and pushes the warm water to the east.
And this is just the kind of habitat the yellow-bellied sea snake loves, so more of them are likely to be spotted by a surfer, fisherman, or beachgoer. The good news: They don’t typically pose a threat to humans.
The creature is deadly and its venom used to shut down the nervous system, but they generally bite small fish. It’s very rare for a person to get a lethal bite because its mouth is small, but if they are bitten, it’s probably because they were touching it. And if that happens, the bite can be very dangerous without immediate attention from a doctor.
— California Guide (@CaliforniaGuide) October 19, 2015
Therefore, experts are warning people not to touch if they spot one, and to keep a safe distance while snapping pictures to send to wildlife experts. They also ask that any sightings are reported to the iNaturalist and HerpMapper websites.
Besides its unusual coloring, it has a narrow, elongated, and flattened triangular head, nostrils atop its head, and a flat body and tail, which has black spots or bars. It also has small fangs on the front of the upper jaw.
[Photo Courtesy RobHamm / Shutterstock]