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Sea Snakes Visit California

Swamp Stomp

Volume 18 Issue 8

The world is made up of two types of people: people who like snakes and people who do not like snakes. This first class of people see snakes as captivating, multi-colored animals that serve as a good friend, ready to curl around your fingers as soon as your familiar, loving hand draws near to their equally loving reptilian bodies. On the other side, the latter class of people are repelled at even a pixelated image of a snake living hundreds of miles away, seeing these cold-blooded reptiles as just the device through which Satan tricked Eve. And unfortunately, if you happen to belong to this latter class of people, there is some bad news: rare sea snakes have continued to wash up unexpectedly on the beaches of California. Moreover, the range of the uncommon yellow-bellied sea snake (Pelamus platurus) is beginning to expand.

So, what is a sea snake? And, further, what is a yellow-bellied sea snake? These reptiles are exactly what they sound like: they are snakes that live in the sea. In fact, their bodies are not suitable for living and slithering on land. Spending their lives in the tropical warmth of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, sea snakes feed on small fish and drink rainwater that collects on the surface of the ocean. Sea snakes also are very venomous. Possessing a neurotoxin that stops communication between muscles and nerve cells, the bite of a sea snake can cause respiratory, heart, or nerve failure. But don’t worry too much because Greg Pauly, herpetological curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, says, “Their fangs are tiny, and they can barely open their mouths wide enough to bite a person.” And until recently, sea snakes lived far, far away from humans.

Since 1972, five sea snakes have washed up in California, hundreds of miles north of their typical range. Why? Until the most recent sea snake washed up on southern California’s Newport Beach, all the snakes had arrived during El Nino years. Because sea snakes tend to follow where the currents lead them, it was strange to see sea snakes in California, but the presence of El Nino made it make sense that these snakes would be so far outside their range. However, on January 10, 2018, when the fifth sea snake arrived, El Nino could not be blamed.

University of Florida biologist and sea snake expert Harvey B. Lillywhite suspects the mysterious arrival of the snakes has to do with the Davidson Current. Rising toward the surface from October through February, the Davidson Current may pick up sea snakes floating near Baja and take them places like Newport Beach. But, historically, not many sea snakes dwell near Baja. Thus, both Pauly and Lillywhite state that warming waters may have something to do with the expanding of sea snakes’ range. However, Pauly admits, “This is all speculation.”

The yellow-bellied sea snake that arrived this past week in California did not survive the colder waters of California. But her death may not be in vain: herpetologists like Lillywhite and Pauly are using her tissue samples and other data to hopefully determine how these sea snakes came to be in California. But until then, California may be seeing a few more sea snakes in their future.



Goldman, Jason G. “Venomous Sea Snake Found Off California-How did it Get There?” National Geographic. National Geographic, 17 January 2018. Web. 19 January 2018.

Kaplan, Sarah. “Rare venomous sea snakes keep washing up on California beaches.” Washington Post. Washington Post, 14 January 2016. Web. 19 January 2018.

Ritchie, Erika I. “Discovery of rare, venomous sea snake in California could mean trouble for sea lions.” Mercury News. Mercury News, 11 January 2018. Web. 19 January 2018.

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