For a snake, two heads are not better than one.
It's like a car with two drivers, with each brain vying to do the thinking that one brain usually does. Snakes that are polycephalic — that's the word for creatures with more than one head — never survive in the wild, experts say.
Conflicting commands mean they have problems with basic functions such as slithering around and catching prey, and natural selection does not favor a freak.
"These kinds of things are not uncommon, but the reason we don't see them in nature is because they die," said Bob Drewes, a herpetologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
But for someone who comes across a live two-headed snake, such as Aron Dickey, owner of Hayward's Reptile Room, it could mean a big payday.
When a red-tailed boa had a litter there last week, Dickey and his staff were startled to find one of the diminutive snakes looking back at them with four eyes and projecting two bifurcated tongues from a bifurcated body, with the heads splitting off at the base of their skulls.
Gordon Burghardt, a herpetologist at the University of Tennessee who has done extensive studies on two-headed snakes and "has two pickled ones on my desk right now," said in his 40 years in his field, only four such specimens have come to his attention.
Dickey said he's read that odds of such a birth are "less than one in a million, more than one in 10 million," and that examples of the condition in boas is nearly unheard of.
Although Dickey hasn't advertised to sell the snake, he's already had an offer of $7,500 from a Southern California man who runs a museum dedicated to deformed animals, he said. He's also got a Bay Area man willing to pony up $7,000 and a third offer of $6,000, he said.
Dickey said the price will go up considerably if the snake eats its first meal — baby boas absorb a yolk sac before getting hungry, and that hasn't happened yet.
"It would probably be worth $10,000 after it eats, and $15,000 after it poops," Dickey said. "The more it eats, the better it thrives, the more the cost goes up. I could probably get $20,000 for it later."
Once such bodily functions occur, it means the reptile's digestive tract is working and that it has the potential to live a long life — such snakes in captivity have lived more than 25 years. One of the most famous doubleheaders — an albino rat snake named "We" that was the main attraction at the World Aquarium in St. Louis — was purchased for $15,000, and after surviving for seven years, was put up for auction for $150,000 in 2006, although a buyer did not emerge. A year later, "We" died unsold.
What are Dickey's plans? "Every morning I come in to check on it and make sure everything's fine," he said. "I just hope it lives."
But he's not willing to take much of a gamble, and wants to sell the snake soon. "You know what they say," he said. —'A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.'""