The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has added another rare specimen to its collection: a yellow-bellied sea snake, whose discovery last week was the first known report of the species in Southern California since 1983.
The 2-foot-long marine serpent was found slithering on the sand Friday by a surfer at Silver Strand Beach in Ventura County. It died shortly after being taken to a local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office.
On Saturday, Greg Pauly, herpetological curator at the museum, put on rubber gloves, recorded its vital statistics, then used laboratory scissors and forceps to snip tissue samples for DNA analysis. Then he placed the snake in a glass jar of formalin for preservation.
"It's an insanely beautiful specimen," he said, admiring the snake's triangular head, its bright yellow underside and its flattened yellow tail with black spots.
The sea snake, known to scientists as Pelamis platurus, was apparently drawn far north of its usual habitat by the spread of abnormally warm ocean temperatures because of El Niño.
The snake is the most wide ranging in the world, inhabiting the coasts of Africa, Asia, Australia, Central America and Mexico, including Baja California.
"There's probably a lot of them swimming off the coast of Southern California right now," Pauly said. "That's because they're following food sources including small fish and eels in warmer water that currently extends farther than it has in a long time."
The species was last seen in Southern California in San Clemente in 1983 during an El Niño.
It is an extremely venomous snake, but unlikely to bite a person unless it is picked up, Pauly said.
"I'm hoping that if people run across more of these sea snakes," Pauly said, "that they keep a safe distance and take photographs, then send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org."