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Elusive Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake Spotted in California

posted: 12/21/15
by: Danny Clemens
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A beach cleanup event yielded a surprising find last week, when volunteers found a venomous yellow-bellied sea snake (Pelamis platura) far from its usual stomping grounds.

There have only been three total reported California sightings of the elusive creature in as many decades, two of which took place this year. The snake is generally found further south, and is relatively common throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The serpent had already died by the time volunteers located it on Bolsa Chica State Beach.

Yellow-bellied sea snake
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A yellow-bellied sea snake (Pelamis platurus), feeding on a fish in Queensland, Australia.
Auscape/Getty Images

According to the Surfrider Foundation, which organized the cleanup event, changes in water temperature spurred by this year's strong El Nino likely "enticed" the animal to swim farther north than usual.

Related: Missouri Snake's 'Virgin Birth' is Species' First

In the open ocean, the snakes can be found in groups of several thousand. According to the IUCN, the animals congregate just beneath debris slicks that "consist variously of debris, foam and scum brought together by converging water currents." The creatures feed on unassuming fish that seek shelter beneath the floating groups of serpents, which resemble floating driftwood from underneath.

The snake can live for up to seven months at at time without water. Because it cannot drink saltwater, the animal must wait for rainy season, when it rehydrates by drinking from a "freshwater lens that forms on the ocean surface during heavy precipitation," according to a 2014 study in Proceedings of the Royal Society.

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