Tiger-Lily, the two-headed snake, is recovering well from a critical operation

Tiger-Lily, the incredibly rare two-headed western rat snake, is recovering well after undergoing critical surgery earlier this month that, surprisingly, had nothing to do with the snake’s many heads.

Despite the western rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus), also known as a black rat snake, because it is a common, non-venomous species across much of central North America, this pair is a rare case of polycephaly (1 in 100,000). Polycephaly is a form of conjoined twins in which one body has two independent heads. In the case of this snake, each head was named Tiger and Lily by the family who found the pair in 2017.

After celebrating their sixth birthday last October, the 5-foot-2 twins were scheduled to continue their statewide tour of Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) sites on March 18, but after sneezing traces of blood during a feeding, the tour was suspended a week before their scheduled departure.

“This immediately raised a red flag with our staff and we quickly arranged for her to be given an appointment with the Animal Health Team at the Saint Louis Zoo,” MDC naturalist Lauren Baker said in a statement.

While examining Tiger-Lily’s condition, the Saint Louis Zoo veterinary team discovered that the twins’ ovaries were in pre-ovulation stasis.

Dr. Michael Warshaw, a veterinarian at the Saint Louis Zoo, explained: “Under normal conditions, follicles would grow in the ovary, which would then ovulate as eggs and eventually be laid. In Tiger-Lily’s case, she began the reproductive cycle, but the follicles did not ovulate and instead continued to grow and remain static in her ovary. Over time, this led to inflammation and the risk of infection.”

The procedure to remove the twins’ ovaries was successfully performed on March 11 at the Saint Louis Endangered Species Research Center and Veterinary Hospital, and they are currently recovering well.

“The Saint Louis Zoo and MDC have a long history of working together to care for Missouri’s native wildlife and we are pleased to have played a role in the care of this exceptional animal,” said Dr. Chris Hanley, Director of Animal Health of the Saint Louis Zoo, said.

The snake house at Shepherd on the Hills Conservation Center is closed for construction, but after the twins’ recovery period is over, which could take about a month, they will continue their tour around the state until they can return to their swanky new digs.

Despite being a rare condition, there are currently a handful of snakes with polycephaly living in captivity. However, the chances of survival of these animals in the wild are low. Polycephalic snakes are particularly vulnerable to predation because they have difficulty escaping and hiding in small holes.

Furthermore, the physical act of eating is compromised when both heads fight to eat the same piece of prey. While the eating abilities of many polysepal animals are determined by their unique anatomy, with some two-headed snakes being able to eat a meal at the same time, in the case of Tiger-Lily they have only one esophagus between them.

“We need to keep their heads separated when they eat,” Alison Bleich, manager of the MDC Interpretive Center, said in a statement. “Since they share the same throat, it wouldn’t be good for them to eat a mouse at the same time or try to swallow the same mouse.”

To feed these twins, a small cup is placed over the head of one to prevent him from grabbing the other’s food. Then the cups are switched so that both twins have a chance to eat. Both meals travel through the same esophagus to the same stomach.

If you want to catch a glimpse of this rare celebrity, Tiger-Lily’s tour continues in the coming months with a trip to MDC’s Anita B. Gormon Discovery Center in Kansas City.

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