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Great Snakes Alive! Venomous Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake Surfaces in California

sea snake sea snake (Photo: Aloaiza/Wikipedia)
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And you thought poisonous sea snakes were only seen in Sponge Bob Square Pants.

People in the tropics have long been familiar with sea snakes, but a snake is just about the last thing most beachgoers in the United States expect to see in the ocean — or it was until recently.

In October, at least two people on a beach near Oxnard in Southern California spotted a colorful snake wash up on the shore and try to wriggle its way back in, according to ABC News. Beachgoer Ann Iker and her family wanted to help it back to the water, but here’s where smartphones come in really handy: They googled the snake and found out within moments that it was the highly venomous yellow-bellied sea snake.

They were shocked by their discovery, they told reporters later, but they stayed with the reptile until it made it back to sea.

Related: What to Do if You Encounter a Snake

The next day another beachgoer saw a snake on the same beach and put it in a bucket so kids wouldn’t get hurt, according to the television story. He brought it home and called different agencies, including the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles. By the time museum herpetology expert Greg Pauley arrived in Oxnard, the snake had died, but when he saw the snake Pauley knew immediately what kind it was.

"It's an insanely beautiful specimen," he told reporters, noting the museum would preserve it for future research.

According to Pauley, this is the farthest north the yellow-bellied sea snake has ever been found. Normally, it lives in the tropics, but El Nino has brought warmer waters to the Pacific, a change that has apparently attracted some tropical snakes. Authorities warned there may be other sea snakes living nearby.

The snake may not have to exert much effort to get to California, since it "drifts passively in warm waters," according to the Marine Education Society of Australasia, which notes the snakes tend to congregate in long lines of marine debris. You don't need to worry about it racing toward you on the beach, though: The sea snake is almost helpless on land.

The chances of getting a lethal bite “are incredibly low,” Pauley told ABC News. The reason: Sea snakes have very small mouths and their targets are usually small fish. And although the snake is about ten times more venomous than the Egyptian cobra, it delivers much less venom per bite.

Still, it pays not to get too close. Pauley warns not to touch the snake, but to notify authorities and take some pictures of it to send to nature@nhm.org or #NatureInLA. Just resist the temptation to get a close-up selfie.

Related: The Animals Most Dangerous to Humans

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