There are plenty of reasons you may wish you lived in California — beautiful weather, beautiful people, that 7-Eleven that sold a winning Powerball ticket.
But you only need one reason not to:
Be grateful, anyone who lives anywhere else.
As for you Californians — well, we’re keeping you in our thoughts.
For the third time in recent months, a rare venomous, yellow-bellied sea snake has washed up on the Golden State’s shores, freaking out beach-goers and intriguing biologists. These creatures typically dwell in tropical waters and never come ashore. What were they doing, cold and covered in sand, in California?
The explanation, like so many of California’s other woes, is tied to the weather.
“Because the water is so warm here now, these snakes can swim, hunt and reproduce just like they could in the northern part of their tropical range,” Paul Barber, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA, told the Huffington Post after the first snake was found in October. “Simply put, they are here because the warmer El Niño conditions have expanded the range of suitable environmental conditions for this snake.”
Yellow-bellied sea snakes are typically black and yellow with a broad, paddle-like tail. They can grow to the length of a baseball bat and are potentially lethal. Their venom contains a potent neurotoxin that stops muscles from communicating with nerve cells, and a single bite can cause respiratory, heart or nerve failure, according to the University of Hawaii’s Waikiki Aquarium.
Luckily, these serpents don’t usually pose too much of a threat to humans because they spend most of their times in the warm, tropical waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They rarely swim close to shore and never come onto dry land voluntarily — their tapered bellies prevent them from slithering.
The snakes aren’t the only animals turning up in surprising places (they’ve also been seen in Australia). In 2010, a lone gray whale — a species that had never been seen outside the Pacific Ocean — was spotted off the Mediterranean coast of Israel. Last summer, a Florida manatee paddled its way up into a Delaware canal. And a sub-Antarctic fur seal was discovered off the coast of Kenya, more than 100 miles farther north than the species had ever been seen before.
Isolated incidents can be chalked up to curious animals wandering too far afield of their ordinary homes. But many researchers believe that something bigger is going on. Recent chaotic climate conditions have scrambled the ecosystems of countless marine species. The oceans are warmer, thanks to climate change and the Pacific’s strange “warm blob,” and the weather is wackier because of an unusually powerful El Niño.
“If you put a bunch of species in a blender, you’re not entirely sure what’s going to come out,” said Malin L. Pinsky, a marine biologist at Rutgers University, told the New York Times last fall.
In August, the journal Nature Climate Change published an ambitious study analyzing the current ranges of nearly 13,000 species of marine animals to figure out where they might wind up in a climate change scenario. It turned out that a few yellow-bellied sea snakes in California are among the least strange things scientists can expect.
Sea creatures will move away from the increasingly warm waters in the tropics — endangering the way of life for fishing-dependent communities — and toward the poles, where they’ll encounter other creatures, both predator and prey. Some newly arrived species will flourish, others will probably go extinct.
“It’s a game about winners and losers, I think,” Jorge García Molinos, the lead author of the study, told the Times.
For now, those scenarios remain mostly theoretical. The presence of a highly venomous snake on a beach near San Diego, on the other hand, is all too real.
Still, herpetologists — snake experts — say there’s not too much cause for alarm.
“Their fangs are tiny and they can barely open their mouths wide enough to bite a person,” Greg Pauly, herpetological curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, told the Los Angeles Times. “So, unless you pick one up, the biggest safety concern with going to the beach is with driving there and then driving home.”