El Niño brings venomous snake to Southern California

By Tim Grobaty, The Daily Breeze


Natural History Museum snake curator Greg Pauly safely shows the fangs of a venomous snake in Huntington Beach. A dead yellow-bellied sea snake from southern Mexico has been discovered on Bolsa Chica beach, only the third one ever reported in California. (Ed Crisostomo/The Orange County Register via AP)

HUNTINGTON BEACH >> The dead yellow-bellied sea snake that was discovered on Bolsa Chica on Dec. 12 was likely brought so far north of its typical range because of warmer waters associated with El Nino, according to Greg Pauly, herpetology curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

The 27-inch-long snake was only the third of its species reported in California. The most recent finding was found in October in Oxnard and the only other one was at San Clemente State Beach in 1983.

While the highly venomous snake is the most widely-distributed snake in the world, on the Pacific coast it is rarely found north of the tip of Baja and in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, said Pauly.

And, despite its toxicity, it poses little danger to humans.

“There’s no reason for anyone to be afraid to go to the beach,” said Pauly.

“Unlike most snakes that we’re afraid of, like rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, the yellow-bellied sea snake is not very good at biting. It’s got a very small mouth and its jaws don’t open wide like a rattlesnake. It’s used to killing and eating very small fish. What they really want is a fish smaller than a couple of inches.”

It’s likely that the snakes found in local waters came up on the warmer currents caused by El Nino, said Pauly, who noted that all three of the ones reported came up in El Nino years.

“They spend their entire lives in the water,” he said. “So they are extremely excellent swimmers, but they can’t swim against the current all the time, so eventually when the warmer currents move farther north, the snakes get pushed along.”

Other fauna not generally found locally have appeared in recent weeks, said Pauly, including some species of tropical birds as well as tuna and hammerhead sharks.

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