Polycephaly

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Heracles and the Lernaean Hydra by Gustave Moreau: The Hydra is perhaps the best known mythological multi-headed animal, also popularised in many fantasy settings.

Polycephaly is a condition of having more than one head. The term is derived from the Greek stems poly- (Greek: "πολύ") meaning 'multiple' and kephali- (Greek: "κεφάλι") meaning "head", and encompasses bicephaly and dicephaly (both referring to two-headedness). A variation is an animal born with two faces on a single head, a condition known as diprosopus. In medical terms these are all congenital cephalic disorders.

There are many occurrences of multi-headed animals, in real life as well as in mythology. In heraldry and vexillology, the double-headed eagle is a common symbol, though no such animal is known to have ever existed.

Bicephalic or tricephalic animals are the only type of multi-headed creatures seen in the real world and form by the same process as conjoined twins: they all result from the failed separation of monozygotic twins. One extreme example of this is the condition of craniopagus parasiticus, whereby a fully developed body has a parasitic twin head joined at the skull.

Occurrences[edit]

Two-headed people and animals, though rare, have long been known to exist and documented. The "Scottish brothers" were conjoined twins, allegedly dicephalic, born 1460 (dates vary). (Human conjoined twins, not all of the dicephalic type, have been documented since 945.)

Novelty and study[edit]

Polycephalic animals often make local news headlines when found. The most commonly observed two-headed animals are turtles and snakes.[1] Other species with known two-headed occurrences include cattle, sheep, pigs, cats, dogs, and fish. In 1894, a two-headed partridge was reported in Boston, Massachusetts.[2] It was notable as a dicephalic animal for surviving into adulthood with two perfect heads. Scientists have published in modern journals about dissecting such animals since at least the 1930s.[1] A 1929 paper studied the anatomy of a two-headed kitten.[1]

Polycephalic animals, due to their rarity, are a subject of novelty. "We", a two-headed albino rat snake born in captivity in 2000 with both female and male genitalia, was scheduled to be auctioned on eBay with an expected price tag of $150,000 (£87,000), though their policy of not trading in live animals prevented the sale.[3][4] On 31 October 2006, the World Aquarium[5] announced that "We" was adopted by Nutra Pharma Corporation, a biotechnology company developing treatments using modified cobra venom and cobratoxin.[6] We died of natural causes at age eight in June 2007, not long after being acquired by Nutra Pharma.[4]

Two-headed farm animals sometimes travel with animal side shows to county fairs. Most notably, The Venice Beach Freakshow supposedly houses the largest collection of two-headed specimens in the world, including over 20 two-headed animals that are alive. Many museums of natural history contain preserved two-headed animals. The Museum of Lausanne[7] in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the Ripley's Believe It Or Not! museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, have collections of preserved two-headed animals. A very well preserved 2-headed lamb is on display in Llanidloes museum in Wales. A live two-headed turtle named Janus can be seen at the Natural History Museum in Geneva, Switzerland.[8][9]

Anatomy and fitness[edit]

Each head of a polycephalic animal has its own brain, and they somehow share control of the organs and limbs, though the specific structure of the connections varies. Animals often move in a disoriented and dizzy fashion, with the brains "arguing" with each other; some animals simply zig-zag without getting anywhere[10] Snake heads may attack and even attempt to swallow each other. Thus, polycephalic animals survive poorly in the wild compared to normal monocephalic animals.

Most two-headed snakes only live for a few months, though some have been reported to live a full life and even reproduced with the offspring born normal. A two-headed black rat snake with separate throats and stomachs survived for 20 years. A two-headed albino rat snake named "We" survived in captivity for 8 years.[11] There is some speculation that the inbreeding of snakes in captivity increases the chances of a two-headed birth.[12]

A famous successful modern case is that of the human dicephalic twins Abigail and Brittany Hensel, born in 1990. The twins have two separate heads and faces, they each have their own individual brains, spinal cords, and hearts. Abby and Brittany however have four lungs, two stomachs, two gall bladders, and three kidneys (2 left, 1 right). Each twin controls the limbs and body parts on her "side", and with coordination that allows them to walk, run, play piano, swim, drive and do anything else they wish.[13]

One or two animals?[edit]

It is difficult to draw the line between what is considered "one animal with two heads" or "two animals that share a body".

With humans, dicephalic conjoined twins such as Abigail and Brittany Hensel are considered "twins", i.e., two individuals.[14] This makes sense as there is a range of conjoinedness, and non-dicephalic conjoined twins may be barely conjoined and separable by surgery, as was the case with Chang and Eng Bunker. Although the Hensel twins only have one pair of arms and legs total, each twin controls one side of the body's limbs. On the other hand, Syafitri, born 2006 in Indonesia, were given one name by their parents because they only had one heart.[15]

With other animals, polycephaly is usually described as "one animal with two heads".[3][16] One of the heads, especially in three-headed animals, may be poorly developed and malformed, and not "participate" much.[10]

Earliest known occurrence[edit]

The February 22, 2007 issue of the journal Biology Letters detailed the discovery of a 120 million-year-old fossil of a 2-headed Hyphalosaurus lingyuanensis, marking the earliest known occurrence of axial bifurcation.[17]

List of recent occurrences[edit]

Humans[edit]

Dicephalus dibrachius diauchenos.
From: Hirst & Piersol, 1893.

Dicephalic conjoined twins (dicephalus dipus)[edit]

Craniopagus parasiticus[edit]

Craniopagus parasiticus is a condition in which a parasitic twin head with an undeveloped or underdeveloped body is attached to the head of a developed twin. Recorded cases include:

Unconfirmed reports[edit]

Non-human mammals[edit]

Cats[edit]

Two-faced kitten, Lausanne

There have been numerous reports of two-faced cats; most die soon after birth. Reports of two-headed kittens are common, relative to other animals, because of their status as household pets. Recent two-headed kittens include:

Polycephalic cats in museums include:

Cattle[edit]

Two-headed calf, Lausanne

Pigs[edit]

Two-headed piglet; Old State House, Hartford, Connecticut

Goats and sheep[edit]

Two-faced lamb, Lausanne

Reptiles[edit]

Snakes[edit]

Most polycephalic snakes do not live long, but some captive individuals do.[40]

Turtles[edit]

Two-headed turtles and tortoises are rare but not unknown. Recent discoveries include:

Crocodiles[edit]

Choristoderes[edit]

In 2006, the UK Royal Society announced that it had discovered a two-headed fossil of Hyphalosaurus, the first recorded time that such a reptile has been found fossilized.

Mythological occurrences[edit]

The 16th-century German zoologist Conrad Gesner has been influenced by the Beast of Revelation in his depiction of the Hydra in volume four of Historiae Animalium.

Mesopotamian mythology[edit]

Greek mythology[edit]

Greek mythology contains a number of multi-headed creatures. Typhon, a vast grisly monster with a hundred heads and a hundred serpents issuing from his thighs, is often described as having several offspring with Echidna, a creature with the body of a serpent but the face of a beautiful woman. Their offspring account for all the major monsters of Greek mythos, including:

Other accounts state that some of these creatures were the offspring of Phorcys and Ceto. Phorcys is also said to have fathered Scylla, a giant monster with six dogs' heads, which terrorises Odysseus and his crew.

In Hinduism[edit]

The six headed Hindu god of war, Kartikeya.

In Taoism[edit]

In Occultism[edit]

Ancient Mediterranean civilizations[edit]

European culture[edit]

Eastern Europe[edit]

Northern Europe[edit]

Japan[edit]

Susanoo slaying the Yamata no Orochi, by Kuniteru

Heraldry[edit]

Modern fiction[edit]

Examples of polycephaly in modern fiction include:

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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