Two heads are not always better than one

Two heads are better than one — at least, that is an old adage that still usually makes sense. 

But not always.   

Consider the plight of a two-headed copperhead snake found this past September in Virginia; its picture appears with this article.

This snake when found was approximately one month old. It was six inches long. Although it obviously had two heads and therefore two nervous systems, there was only one body.   

Shortly after it was found and turned over to a trained herpetologist for care, tests were conducted to determine its chances for survival.

It was determined that this snake would not likely survive for long on its own for the simple reason these two nervous systems would be competing to serve the same body.   

So an attempt was made to save the snake under controlled conditions.

An examination of the snake revealed it had two heads and two throats but one set of lungs and one heart. Both heads were equipped with fangs and venom sacks, so each head was capable of envenoming prey.

The right throat was more developed and could better accommodate prey but the left head was more dominant and this is where life for this snake would become problematic.  

Because the left head was dominant, it was predicted that this head would fight with the right head to swallow the prey that the right head had envenomed and was attempting to swallow.  

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After two days in captivity, the snake died.

At about the same time as the Virginia copperhead was found, another two-headed copperhead was found in Kentucky. Its picture also appears with this article.   

Although it is not clear to what extent the Kentucky snake has been examined by a herpetologist, the same problem will undoubtedly exist for this snake as well.   

We know of this potential because there is a herpetologist who, believe it or not, has studied more than 950 snakes with two heads and he states that without some sort of supervision, two-headed snakes almost always fight to the death over food.

Some two-headed snakes do survive in captivity if there is supervision over their eating habits; one two-headed king snake in captivity, for example, lived for 17 years.   

The St. Louis Zoo also had a two-headed snake (named “We”) that survived for a long time. If they do survive, two-headed snakes have been in great demand as pets.   

So if your head is not already spinning, this will do it; here is a partial list of persons who have owned two-headed snakes: Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Thomas Jefferson and Ellen DeGeneres.

Finally, we should mention an interesting issue about two-headed snakes that is being addressed by Enrique Font, a herpetologist at the University of Valencia in Spain.   

He has a male two-headed ladder snake that is now a mature snake. This year he is going to attempt to mate the snake with a female; the issue will be whether the two heads will have conflicting ideas about courtship and mating or whether they can agree on “taking care of business” with a specific lady friend.  

I am betting that they will be able to agree at least on this issue.

(Bill Hoagland can be reached at

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