Could Climate Change Bring More Venomous Sea Snakes to California?

When an extreme El Niño weather pattern raised Pacific Ocean temperatures off the coast of Southern California three years ago, extremely venomous yellow-bellied sea snakes — a creature that had only been seen once before, in 1972 — washed up on three Southern California beaches.

The yellow-bellied sea snake (Hydrophis platurus), a descendant from Asian cobras and Australian tiger snakes, is the most widespread snake species in the world. These snakes spend their entire lives in the water – but normally in warm, tropical habitats.

There have been no additional sea snake sightings on California beaches until this year, and there’s no El Niño weather pattern this time around. On Jan. 11, someone walking along the sands of Newport Beach nearly tripped over a 2-foot-long female sea snake.

Due to climate change and rising ocean temperatures, “the species that respond to that change will be those that are the most mobile,” Greg Pauly, associate curator of herpetology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLA), told the Los Angeles Times. “So the big question now is this: Are sea snakes swimming off the coast of Southern California the new normal?”

It could very well be. On its website, the NHMLA says “the phrase ‘sea snake on a California beach’ may be the new ‘canary in a coal mine’ for climate change.”

As scary as this may sound, the yellow-bellied sea snake is fortunately not known to be very aggressive toward humans. They’re not dangerous “unless people handle them carelessly,” Pauly said. “They have small mouths and cannot open their jaws very wide. The fangs are tiny and set back from the front of the mouth. Thus, there are few spots on the human body where a snake could even get the fangs in contact with skin.”

The sickly yellow-bellied sea snake discovered earlier this month in Newport Beach was taken to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach and euthanized. It will be preserved and put on display with the other sea snakes at the NHMLA.

The five sea snakes that have been found on California beaches were either very sick or already dead. All of them were discovered between the months of October and March, the time of year when the Davidson Current is active on the ocean’s surface instead of far below the surface, according to the NHMLA. This current, which is especially active during El Niño years, runs up to 20 miles offshore, pushing warm water – along with marine life like sea snakes — northward.

“As a lost sea snake encounters increasingly cold water, it becomes tired, sick and unable to digest its food,” the NHMLA notes. “That’s when winds push it ashore where observant beachgoers might find it stranded on the sand.”

If you should happen to come across a yellow-bellied sea snake on a California beach, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t touch it. Take a photo if you can and email it to the NHMLA Community Science Team at nature@nhm.org.

“A few more of these sea snake sightings in Southern California,” Pauly told the L.A. Times, “and we’ll have a pattern telling us that something remarkable is happening in our ocean and the species it supports.”

Photo credit: Aloaiza

83 comments

Jeanne R
Jeanne R3 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

SEND
Jeanne R
Jeanne R3 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

SEND
Jeanne R
Jeanne R3 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

SEND
Jeanne R
Jeanne R3 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

SEND
Jeanne R
Jeanne R3 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

SEND
Marie W
Marie W3 months ago

thanks

SEND
Paulo R
Paulo R8 months ago

ty

SEND
Paulo R
Paulo R8 months ago

ty

SEND
Paulo Reeson
Paulo R9 months ago

ty

SEND
Paulo Reeson
Paulo R9 months ago

ty

SEND