While checking empty nests left by recently hatched loggerhead turtles, a University of Central Florida intern found a straggler struggling to keep up. Upon closer inspection, she noticed the baby turtle had an extra feature—a second head.
Thousands of turtles lay eggs along the 29-mile stretch monitored by the university, and more still lay their eggs along Florida—one of the largest aggregations of loggerheads in the world. In 2016, just over 122,000 turtles were born from the state's nests.
"It's not rare to find a turtle born with developmental abnormalities," says Kate Mansfield, who manages the university's Marine Turtle Research Group.
Loggerhead turtles are protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature classifies the big reptiles as vulnerable to extinction.
Will It Survive?
The intern released the turtle, and, despite lagging behind its nestmates, the odd-looking hatchling appeared energetic as it crawled away.
The turtle was released and quickly swam away. It's possible it will survive, but researchers say it's not likely.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LEAH RITTENBERG, UCF MARINE TURTLE RESEARCH GROUP
"It's possible it could survive, but the chances are pretty low," says Mansfield, who adds a genetic mutation likely caused the two heads.
The chances for survival for any hatchling is low: According to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, anywhere from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 10,000 infant turtles make it adulthood.
Turtles face many dangers along their migration routes. Fishing nets, development along coastlines, and climate change all impact a loggerhead's chances for survival.
When asked if she had ever encountered an adult turtle with a severe abnormality, Mansfield said it wasn't common. Of the wild sea turtles observed by researchers, most are egg-laying females that come to shore. Occasionally her team has found a turtle with a misshapen shell, but the most common issues she sees are injuries, not anatomical abnormalities.
"Injuries from ship strikes or bitten flippers are common," she says.
Better Than One
The Florida turtle isn't the first to gain Internet notoriety. In 2013, a freshwater Texas River Cooter was born in the San Antonio zoo with two heads. Nicknamed Thelma and Louise, the turtle (or turtles) lived to be a year old before it died of unknown causes.
At the time of its birth, the zoo explained that the turtles suffered from a condition called polycephaly, a condition that results when zygotes don't properly separate during development.
The condition is thought to occur in a number of animal species, but for yet-to-be-determined issues, is prevalent in snakes and turtles.
Header Image: The turtle was found during a routine nest inspection. These images were taken by the UCF Marine Turtle Research Group while conducting permitted research (Permit MTP-186). PHOTOGRAPH BY LEAH RITTENBERG, UCF MARINE TURTLE RESEARCH GROUP