This Two-Headed Israeli Salamander Is Kind Of Freaking People Out

A University of Haifa ecology lab that collected wild specimens of an endangered salamander got more than it expected, when one of the salamanders gave birth to an offspring with two heads. The lab also got some unwelcome publicity, when the media began referring to it as the "radioactive" salamander.

The Near Eastern fire salamander (Salamandra infraimmaculata) is listed as "near threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which cites shrinking habitats in Israel, Lebanon and Syria as a cause for their plight. Another likely factor is increasing levels of water pollution in the region. Also, quite a few of them get run over by cars.

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Leon Blaustein, who heads the ecology lab, has been conducting research on the species for many years with the goal of helping the nature and parks authorities maintain the existing population and revive populations in danger.

According to researchers at the lab, the salamanders act as a barometer for the general health of the environment. Because they are so sensitive to pollution and environmental changes, they are among the first species to die off.

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But, is pollution responsible for the dual-headed salamander? Initially a statement issued by the University of Haifa said that the deformity could have been caused by contaminated water or radiation, which prompted several media outlets to call it the "radioactive salamander."

But Blaustein says radiation definitely isn't the cause for the deformity. Water pollution could be responsible, he says, since the specimens were collected at the Kaukab Springs in the Galilee Mountains, which is one of the more polluted breeding sites for the species. But also, a random mutation or birth defect can't be ruled out. The salamander isn't the only wild animal found with two heads where only one was supposed to grow. In 2013, a fisherman in Florida caught a pregnant shark and found that one of the live fetuses inside her womb had two heads. Another 2013 find in Australia of an "oddly shaped, pale object" turned out to be a stillborn baby ray with two heads. This defect can occur for several reasons, including an embryo that begins to split into twins, but does not complete the process.

In the meantime, the lab is studying the salamander, which has been dubbed "Arne" and "Sebastian" (in honor of two German ecologists with whom the lab collaborates). Both heads move, Blaustein said, but so far, the researchers have seen only one chowing down on a salamander baby's favorite meal: insect larvae.

[H/T: The Jewish Press, Live Science]

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DISCUSSION

There's a few ways to produce a two-headed body. One way, which is the way you state, is where the embryo was partially split during early development, and instead of producing two full twins, you instead produce one body with two "front halves".

During development this salamander basically was a bunch of tubes inside a big tube. In this case it seems like several of these tubes are split on the front, so instead of an I they are a Y, as seen from above. Until someone dissects the deceased individual (s? not sure on how many salamander this counts as) we don't know for sure if all the tubes are split; if there's 1 Y-shaped esophagus, or just one slightly askew I-shaped esophagus. But to randomly hypothesize based on a priori assumptions... The heads look pretty similar to each other so it seems like everything in the heads are developing 'normally' which would usually only happen if everything inside them (esophagus and brain included) is there. So I assume two brains. That would lead to a slightly confusing existence, but the benefit of being a salamander is that you don't have much to think about. If you detect food, you eat it. Repeat repeat repeat.

Both of the "heads" have arms attached, which means this isn't just a two-headed salamander; it's a salamander with two heads, pectoral girdles, and upper torsos. So maybe it even has two stomachs which join together to form one common intestinal tract. I think the split is so near the back end of the animal that it would have two fully functional hearts.

That only one of the front halves is eating is weird. That's not particularly helpful for the animal, because it's going to be lugging around this extra (maybe not-eating) front half for the rest of its life (which, in nature, would not be long).