A conservationist team of biologists from the Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head Island was monitoring sea turtle hatchlings in South Carolina when they stumbled upon a very rare oddity. The team was assessing the contents of a loggerhead turtle nest when, to their surprise, they found a little hatchling with two heads.
“We thought we had seen it all during this very busy season on Sea Turtle Patrol,” the group said on Facebook.
“The mutation is more common in reptiles than in other animals, but it is still very rare,” Sea Turtle Patrol staff posted. “As with other live hatchlings found during a nest inventory, this hatchling was released to the ocean.”
The team named the two-headed turtle Squirt and Crush after characters from the Disney movie Finding Nemo.
We thought we had seen it all during this very busy season on Sea Turtle Patrol! Yesterday on patrol during a nest…
Sea Turtle Patrol works to protect turtles on Hilton Head Island but aims to keep everything as natural as possible for the animals. They did not collect the bicephalic hatchling to rear in captivity and instead released it into the sea. The baby turtle was struggling to crawl due to its abnormally shaped shell and it’s unclear how well it will cope in the ocean as the survival rate of healthy hatchlings is low.
“Sea turtle patrol follows rules set by the State Department of Natural Resources which calls for us to protect the nests and turtles but to also allow as natural a process as possible,” the turtle’s discoverer, Jayme Davidson Lopko, wrote in a Facebook post. “We do not take hatchlings off the beach to raise or rehabilitate. This little guy is on his own just like his brothers and sisters that came from the nest and like they have been doing for millions of years.
The team who discovered the turtle told PEN News that the sea turtle’s right head appeared to govern one flipper, while the left head governed the other.
“There’s a bump that goes down the centre of turtle’s shells and there are two of them here, so they probably each have their own spine,” Amber Kuehn, manager of Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head Island, told the news outlet.
With two flippers, however, the turtle couldn’t swim well. Kuehn said the odds of it surviving didn’t look good. “In general, even for the healthy ones, it’s one in a hundred,” she said.
Allthough having two heads is extremely rare, it is a little more common in reptiles than other animals. In fact, Davidson Lopko notes that in her 15 years of monitoring nests she has found a couple of two-headed hatchlings (including Squirt and Crush). In addition to turtles, bicephaly has also been reported in lizards and snakes. Reptiles are more likely to be bicephalic because they produce a large number of offspring and because most reptiles lay eggs. These eggs are exposed to environmental conditions that might affect the development of the embryo inside.
Bicephaly can result from both genetic and environmental anomalies during an embryo’s development. Sometimes, an embryo splits in two (which is how identical twins form) but does so incompletely. This is what causes conjoined twins in humans although it is incredibly rare for them to have two heads. Meanwhile, sometimes two separate embryos can fuse together but only partially, resulting in the development of a two-headed animal.
Photos: Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head Island