By Bridget Altman
The chance to peek at this Yellow-bellied sea snake (Pelamis platura) felt like getting to meet a celebrity. Since this specimen was spotted on January 12, 2016, it has been featured in countless news clips and articles. Unfortunately, this snake’s fifteen minutes of fame ended when it died after being found on a beach in Coronado. Its body now lies here in the Marine Vertebrates Collection at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where it is being preserved for the collections.
Yellow-bellied sea snakes have the ability to travel around the ocean using unique adaptations that help it survive underwater. Reptiles, like all animals, need oxygen to breathe. Unlike fish however, snakes do not have the gills to help breathe underwater. To overcome this challenge, sea snakes have adapted a huge cylindrical lung, spanning almost the entire length of its body, that allows it to stay submerged in water for as long as 80 minutes. To help cope with the salinity of ocean water, sea snakes have an organ under their tongue that excretes excess salt. However to get freshwater for drinking, Yellow-bellied sea snakes have been known to swim near the surface and drink from the thin freshwater layer that forms on top of seawater when it rains. Different than its land dwelling cousins, the sea snake has a tail that is laterally compressed and resembles a paddle; flattened like an eel’s tail to help it move more efficiently through the ocean. All of these amazing life history characteristics of sea snakes make this rare sighting all the more exciting!
The life of a typical Yellow-bellied sea snake is completely aquatic, meaning it spends its entire life in the open ocean without ever coming on land. One lone ranger, however, was found stranded in the surf zone of a beach in Coronado in San Diego County. This is the second sighting of a sea snake in Southern California this season. In October 2015, a sea snake washed ashore on a beach in Ventura County, California. Previously, a sea snake had not been spotted in Southern California waters in over 30 years.
Current scientific forecasts predict that globally our waters are getting warmer. This may allow for species typically found in more tropical waters to survive in new areas as water temperature changes. But is this specific sighting due to climate change or El Niño? Phil Hastings of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography says “the sea snake is just another sign of El Niño, like the unusual sightings of hammerhead sharks” in San Diego in 2015. El Niño is a fluctuation in atmospheric and oceanic conditions that helps drive warm waters from the tropics to more temperate climates. This year, San Diego has had a record-breaking number of hammerhead shark sightings, as well as 2 unusual whale shark sightings.
While El Niño is a naturally occurring phenomenon, these conditions may mimic those of the future. The animals spotted in these seemingly unusual ranges may be an indication of what lies ahead. So, has this snake become the canary in the coalmine of changing oceanic conditions? Or is this just a result of what one NASA scientist claimed to be the “Godzilla El Niño”? Only time will tell.
Bridget is a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography studying Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. She hopes to help the world understand the importance of ocean stewardship. She has a passion for all ocean creatures, specifically apex predators. She ultimately wants to become a PR agent for sharks.
Copyright © 2016 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.