There’s no guarantee El Niño will bring rain to a drought-stricken California, but it has brought venomous sea snakes.
People in the southern California city of Oxnard stumbled across a highly venomous yellow-bellied sea snake on the beach last week.
Normally, yellow-bellied sea snakes limit themselves to the warmer areas of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. This year, a large El Niño, which periodically disrupts the tropical Pacific’s normal weather system, is shifting much of that warm water to the north, bringing tropical species — snakes included — with it.
According to Greg Pauly, curator of herpetology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the last time a sea snake washed up in California was in 1972, and it came ashore about 100 miles south of Oxnard.
The snake found last week is “the northernmost sea snake ever documented in the Pacific Coast of North America,” Pauly told CNN. “I never would have thought that a sea snake would wash up that far up north.”
“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,” Dr. Paul Barber, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA, told The Huffington Post. “Simply put, they are here because the warmer El Niño conditions have expanded the range of suitable environmental conditions for this snake. This has also happened with other marine species like hammerhead sharks.”
Barber said he expects the snakes will retreat when the water cools back down to its normal temperatures.
Despite having “very, very potent” venom, Barber said the snakes aren’t naturally aggressive animals and will generally only bite if they’re handled or feeling defensive. So if you encounter one, call wildlife officials and admire it from a safe distance.
“Our cooling nighttime temperatures could cause these snakes to appear slow and lethargic in the morning,” Barber cautioned. “However, when the snake warms up, they will be able to function fully, so a slow, docile snake in a bucket could turn into a very fast, agitated snake in a bucket relatively quickly with warming temperatures.”