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A Sea Snake Sneaks

By John Shivik

Pelamis platura, yellowbelly sea snake
Pelamis platura, yellowbelly sea snake. Photo credit: Aloaiza

It is mysterious and beautiful, literally a creature from a different world. Its body is ebony above and golden below, a serpent with aposematic paint. The edges of the opposing colors undulate down its side until the yellow becomes drips on the black, dorsally flattened tail. The exotic animal is a yellow bellied sea snake, Pelamis platura, which is normally found in warm, tropical waters.  But due to a recent climatic vagary, the snake has found its way onto an Oxnard beach, miles up the coast from Los Angeles, hundreds of miles from the edge of its normal range. It is stunning, amazing, but how is the event chronicled?

If it bites you, you will die. 

The reason for the venomous snake’s northern intrusion is a burning El Niño, which has warmed the waters of the tropical pacific.  The edges of the anomaly have ebbed up to southern California, bringing warm water loving fauna with it. The California current normally carries cold water from the north and combines it with a frigid upwelling from the deep. At the same latitude on the Atlantic coast the water is nearly bath-warm, but in California, the currents force surfers into thick wetsuits. This year, however, the delicate balance of temperatures has been shaken and the ecosystem altered. The obvious evidence is that a tropical snake has sneaked up the California coast.

The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center uses data from an extensive earth and satellite based monitoring system to calculate the Oceanic Niño Index, a moving average of temperatures in the south Pacific. This year’s data are exceptional as the anomaly has started early and strong. In the last exceptional 1982 event, temperatures weren’t 0.5 degrees Celsius above normal until the May measurement. This year, that was achieved it in April. In September, the 1982 sea surface temperature was 1 degree above normal, but this year it is 1.5 degrees higher, also a month earlier—and still rising.

As the earth’s lands and seas transform, the animals will alter their behaviors too. Unique events will become common. Ranges will change—either expand or shrink. All species adapt to such progression as their genetic variation makes them inherently able. Variation is the essence of natural selection and the fuel of evolution. Whether or not climate change will occur too rapidly and extremely for many species to adapt remains to be seen.

In the short term, we will see sea snake anomalies. Animals will wash up or walk into neighborhoods where they hadn’t been in the past. This could be sea snakes in California, coyotes in Connecticut, or grizzly wandering into Utah. Given reports of amphibian declines, one can only hope for a plague of frogs. Bears will be at more barbeques earlier and later during the year; they already appear to hibernate less in some places. There will be stories of more strange interlopers where they have never been seen before.

How are we going to respond? Will it be with fear, focusing on the venom, or sharp teeth of the novel beasts? Will we to try to keep the earth and ocean fauna at static while the ground and water beneath them changes? They must move, adapt, or die. We need to think about how we can adapt our habits too, to learn how to share the land with them.

I hope that we will develop a new psychology of Nature—that it is not as a thing of distant parks and protected places, but a Nature in which we are all ensconced. There is not enough room, nor a large enough fleet of protected arks to pack them safely away. If we are to live with both the dangerous and harmless around us, we’ll need to form a new familiarity with animals as beings near our windows and not only seen through nature show screens. Our first response on seeing a sea snake ought to be to jump with joy for the good luck of it, and then to remember to respect it for the animal that it is. Deadly, yes, but also wondrously beautiful.

It is about learning to acknowledge beauty and to balance it with respect, whether it is a venomous snake or a cougar slinking on the edge of suburbia. We don’t need to fear the animals, but we do need accept that some of them kill for a living. They can be among us, but will need a little extra effort from us. We’ll need more tools both technical and psychological, because if we don’t love them more than we fear them, there won’t be space for them anywhere.


About the Author 

image from www.beacon.orgJohn Shivik is a recognized leader in nonlethal techniques for predator management. As a federal and university researcher, he has investigated mammalian predators in ecological systems throughout the United States and Europe. His numerous scientific works have been published in the Journal of Wildlife ManagementConservation Biology, and BioScience. He is also the author of The Predator Paradox.