The two-headed baby sea turtle, unsurprisingly, almost didn’t make it out of the nest.
On Tuesday morning, researchers with the University of Central Florida’s turtle research lab were walking along a Brevard County beach, counting how many hatchlings had emerged from nests that had been marked days before. But as two interns with the lab examined one of the nests, they realized that a straggler was hidden in the sand: a baby loggerhead with two heads, barely large enough to fit into a human palm.
The research group shared a photo of the hatchling on its Facebook page Thursday, noting that its staff had “never seen anything quite like it.”
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The turtle was “alive and energetic when we encountered it,” the lab wrote in a comment, adding the hatchling was released into the ocean after taking a few photos. “Hatchlings with these abnormalities typically have other developmental problems and don't survive very long. But we gave it a chance.”
Sea turtle hatchlings already face a difficult path when they first emerge from the nest, digging themselves out of the sand and then dodging hungry birds and other hazards to reach the ocean. Even if they make it to water, they’re easy prey for sea predators for the early part of their lives. Of the thousands of sea turtle hatchlings that are born every year on Florida’s coasts, only about one in each thousand survive to adulthood, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Kate Mansfield, an assistant professor at UCF who directs the turtle lab, said similar abnormalities had been seen on other sea turtle nest surveys, though they remain uncommon. In 2016, the lab reported that it had documented a likely hawksbill-loggerhead hybrid sea turtle while conducting research on one of its nesting beaches. In 2012, a similar two-headed hatchling was found in Jupiter during a sea turtle nest excavation, according to TC Palm.
“Among the stragglers we encounter, we do see developmental abnormalities as well such as missing flippers, odd scute (scales on the shell) patterns, [and] missing eyes,” Mansfield wrote in an email. “Two-headed hatchlings are fairly rare, but not-unheard-of.”
The likelihood of any individual sea turtle surviving to adulthood is already low, and abnormalities like two heads only make it more difficult, she added. “The other two-headed hatchlings I’ve seen or heard of did not survive long.”
The research group regularly tracks sea turtle nesting along about 20 miles of the central Florida coast during the nesting season. As of Friday, the group has documented more than 20,000 sea turtle nests, including loggerheads, leatherbacks and green turtles since the season began this spring. The nesting season ends in September.