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Discovery of rare, venomous yellow-bellied sea snake in Newport Beach could mean trouble for sea lions

LAGUNA BEACH — Officials from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center on Thursday, Jan. 11 joined scientists from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles to announce the discovery in Newport Beach of a rare, venomous yellow-bellied sea snake.
The 25-inch-long adult female snake, found by a beachgoer who nearly tripped over it near the 18th Street lifeguard tower on Tuesday, has the marine mammal rescue center assessing what it could mean for sea lion strandings this year.
Scientists at the Los Angeles museum are excited, but a bit concerned.
Cider, a California sea lion that was the 121st sea lion rescued in 2017, sits with other lethargic and under weight sea lions at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. (Photo by Kevin SullivanOrange County Register/SCNG)A rare yellow-bellied sea snake found in Newport Beach waits to be inspected at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. It is only the fifth one ever to be found in California. (Photo by Kevin SullivanOrange County Register/SCNG)Lumiere, a Harbor Seal, swims in a pool at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. (Photo by Kevin SullivanOrange County Register/SCNG)Hot Toddy, a California sea lion that has been nursed back to health over the last 10-months, plays next to a pool at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. (Photo by Kevin SullivanOrange County Register/SCNG)Greg Pauly, Ph.D., Assistant Curator of Herpatology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County examines a rare yellow-bellied sea snake found in Newport Beach at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. It is only the fifth one ever to be found in California and could mean the beginning of an El Nino and an onslaught of stranded sea lions. (Photo by Kevin SullivanOrange County Register/SCNG)Rescued California sea lions, lethargic and under weight, sit with others at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. (Photo by Kevin SullivanOrange County Register/SCNG)Coco Chanel, a California sea lion that was rescued Wednesday morning, sits with other lethargic and under weight sea lions at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. (Photo by Kevin SullivanOrange County Register/SCNG)Greg Pauly, Ph.D., Assistant Curator of Herpatology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County examines a rare yellow-bellied sea snake found in Newport Beach at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. It is only the fifth one ever to be found in California. (Photo by Kevin SullivanOrange County Register/SCNG)Greg Pauly, Ph.D., Assistant Curator of Herpatology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, left, and Animal Care Coordinator Wendy Leeds, examine a rare yellow-bellied sea snake found in Newport Beach at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. It is only the fifth one ever to be found in California and could mean the beginning of an El Nino and an onslaught of stranded sea lions. (Photo by Kevin SullivanOrange County Register/SCNG)Greg Pauly, Ph.D., Assistant Curator of Herpatology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County examines a rare yellow-bellied sea snake found in Newport Beach at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. It is only the fifth one ever to be found in California. (Photo by Kevin SullivanOrange County Register/SCNG)Greg Pauly, Ph.D., Assistant Curator of Herpatology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County examines a rare yellow-bellied sea snake found in Newport Beach at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. It is only the fifth one ever to be found in California. (Photo by Kevin SullivanOrange County Register/SCNG)Greg Pauly, Ph.D., Assistant Curator of Herpatology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County examines a rare yellow-bellied sea snake found in Newport Beach at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. It is only the fifth one ever to be found in California. (Photo by Kevin SullivanOrange County Register/SCNG)Show Caption of Expand
“The discovery of the rare pelagic snake is only the fifth ever recorded in the history of California,” said Greg Pauly, associate curator of herpetology at the museum. “But it is the first discovered outside an El Niño year.”
Most recently the snake species — which is typically only found in tropical waters and never comes ashore — was discovered on a beach in Coronado in January 2016. Another one was found in December 2015 at Bolsa Chica State Beach and another was discovered on Silver Strand Beach in Oxnard in October 2015. Oxnard is the farthest north one of these snakes has ever been found, Pauly said.
Officials at PMMC worry that the snake’s discovery could signal trouble for sea lions.
The year the two snakes were discovered, 2015, El Niño conditions led to warmer water, driving away much of the sea lions’ food and contributing to mass strandings along California’s coast. PMMC rescued more than 600 sea lions that season.
So far, the center has rescued 10 sea lion pups since Sept. 30, an increase from the same period last year, said PMMC spokeswoman Krysta Higuchi. The most recent one rescued from an Orange County beach was on Wednesday, Jan. 10.

var _informq = _informq || []; _informq.push([“embed”]); The fact that the yellow-bellied snake was found in what climatologists are calling a weak La Niña has staff at the sea lion center and Pauly asking questions.
“We are having to totally re-assess what we’re thinking,” Higuchi said, adding that she is comparing notes with Justin Viezbicke, marine mammal coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
For Pauly, the discovery meant a trip to PMMC Wednesday to pick up the snake. The animal, weak and sick and weighing one-third of a pound, was euthanized by Newport Beach animal control on Wednesday.
“When they get washed up on the beach, it’s because they have no energy to swim back,” he said. “They get so sick and their body temperatures get so low. They have such a unique lifestyle and would require a huge tank. They do not do well in captivity, so there was no option.”
The snake, unlike those on land, does not have scales that help it move forward. It spends its entire life at sea and gives birth in the water. It’s entire body is like a modified fin and its tail is like a paddle. It feeds on small fish and eel.
Pauly took the snake back to the museum where it will be studied, preserved and added to the museum’s collection of more than 190,000 snakes — one of the largest research collections in the nation.
On Wednesday night, Pauly spent time studying the snake. He took a tissue sample for future genetic studies.
“Whereas a vet would want a more detailed work-up to consider the potential causes of death, as a museum curator, I am more concerned with preserving the DNA sample and the whole specimen to maximize research value of this incredibly important species for centuries to come,” he said.
“Whether this will be really bad news for other species, we can’t predict,” he said. “It certainly says we really need to be watching. It tells me something very different is happening. In a relatively short time, four snakes have been found and one not in an El Niño year. We are seeing dramatic shifts associated with warming oceans.”
Source: Oc Register

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