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A Rare Two-headed, Six-legged Turtle is Alive and Kicking, Surprising Scientists

·4-min read

In the popular Hollywood movies, Jurrasic Park, Dr Ian Maclolm, portrayed by Jeff Goldblum, says “If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously. Life finds a way.” A rare, two-headed turtle in the US, maybe proving the quote right. Two rare-two headed turtle hatched a couple of weeks ago, has two heads. The diamondback terrapin turtle hatched has two-skulls and six-legs. The reptile was brought to a Massachusetts wildlife center where veterinarians are continuing to closely monitor its health. The rare condition of being born with two heads is called bicephaly.

The newly-born turtle looks like a pair of conjoined twins, with two independently moving heads poking out of its green shell. When in water, each skull comes up at different times to breathe, and each head controls their own set of three legs. X-rays also show that hidden inside the shell are two distinct gastrointestinal tracts. The turtle duo also partially share a spine, reported Pop Sci.

According to a Facebook post by the Cape Wildlife Center where they currently are, the condition of bicephaly is a rare anomaly that can occur from both genetic and environmental factors that influence an embryo during development. The turtle siblings hatched from a protected nesting site in Barnstable and were brought to the hospital by Barnstable department of natural resources for assessment. Similar to conjoined twins in humans they share parts of their body but also have some parts that are independent. In this case, they have two heads and six legs. The post mentioned that on admission, both sides were very alert and active and “our veterinary team was eager to learn more about them.”

The vets at the center have also given the conjoined pair a nickname: Mary-Kate and Ashley. But the surprising bit, perhaps, is that the conjoined pair is still alive – and thriving. When they first arrived at the facility, Mary-Kate and Ashley weighed just 6.5 grams, Bergman told The Boston Globe. They now weigh 9 grams, reported The Washington Post. This is surprising, because much like it is mentioned on the Facebook post, “Animals with this rare condition don’t always survive very long or live a good quality of life.”

It goes on to add that, “But these two have given us reason to be optimistic! “They” have been in our care for just over two weeks and continue to be bright and active. They are eating, swimming, and gaining weight each day. It is impossible to get inside the heads of these two, but it appears that they work together to navigate their environment.”

The post added that the team at the wildlife center is taking “this case day-by-day and are working to learn as much as we can about these two while they are in in our care. So far, X-rays revealed that they have two spines that fuse further down the body. We have been observing them moving and swimming showing they each have control of three legs. After hatching they had one shared yolk sac that provided them nutrition in the first few days after entering the world however with that resource used up our next step was to see what their gastrointestinal (GI) tract looked like and if they would each be able to eat and absorb nutrients to continue to grow. A barium study revealed they each have separate GIs. The right side appears to be slightly more developed but they are eating and digesting food. A supervised deep water swim test showed that they can coordinate swimming so that they can come to the surface to breathe when needed.”

The post also shares that, “There is still so much to learn about them and our next step is to try and get them a CT scan when they are a little bit bigger, which would provide more information on what internal structures they share.”

The most common bicephaly is noticed in snakes. According to an ABC report from 2018, Gordon Burghardt of the University of Tennessee, in his decades of studying of animal behaviour, has encountered four two-headed snakes. One two-headed black rat snake had two separate stomachs — and its two heads fought over prey. It managed to survive for 20 years.

Diamondback terrapin turtles are a threatened species in Massachusetts, Adult terrapins can grow up to 10 inches (25 cm), weigh more than 2 pounds (1 kilogram), and can live for decades. Mary-Kate and Ashley may not reach those markers, and probably won’t ever be released into the wild, reported Pop Sci. “This is a mutation that would not survive in the wild,” terrapin population ecologist at Ohio University, Willem Roosenburg, told The Washington Post.

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