Snakes on the Brain. It is the latest Blockbuster around here. I have snakes on the brain, in my dreams, in my nightmares, in my thoughts, on my mind. They are haunting me, they are taunting me. Everywhere I go I hear new snake stories.
Costa Rica is home to 22 species of venomous snakes, but one breed in particular terrifies me, the famous fer-de-lance, or the terciopelo as the locals call it. It is a member of the pit viper family, and is one of Costa Rica's most aggressive and feared snakes.
Often referred to as the "ultimate pit viper", this snake is known for having a hot temper. They react defensively and don't ask questions. Although snakes do not want to bite humans, they will react defensively if startled or threatened. In Costa Rica the fer-de-lance is responsible for more than half of all venomous snake bites, and is also responsible for nearly all fatalities caused by snakebite.
A family member of a friend of ours was bitten by one recently: two bites, one on each foot. It was a large snake, curled up underneath her car at night. She was not out hiking through the jungle barefoot, alone in the dark. She was just innocently getting into her car, which reminds us all to be aware of our surroundings. We never get into our car now without checking underneath it first.
Her medical costs and reconstructive surgery costs will be astronomical and anyone that wants to pitch in and contribute can visit their Go Fund Me page to make a donation. Every penny is appreciated. (a special thanks to our family members who have already donated). Here is the website to the donation page, just copy and paste it into your browser:
A few terciopelos have recently been spotted near our pool area at the village. One of the workers showed us a video of a 6-foot female that they killed. They slit open her engorged belly and 17 baby pit vipers slithered out of her, ready to claim their territory and defend it rigorously. Because they are territorial, the workers killed all 17 of the babies.
Snakes are an important part of the rainforest ecosystem, and I prefer to never kill anything if possible. But I must admit I sleep a little better at night knowing there are not 17 brand new baby terciopelos sleeping in the jungle surrounding our home. Although I am sure there are many more than 17 babies out there right now, as prime fer-de-lance birthing season takes place between April and June, and they can give birth to as many as 90 baby snakes at one time. (no wonder I'm having snake nightmares)
Recently we were at a potluck at a friend's house and we spotted a baby terciopelo curled up underneath the house. He appeared harmless enough, slumbering deeply during the hot, humid daylight. His camouflage was impressive and I would never have noticed him if Andy hadn't pointed him out to me. Another reminder to always be aware of our surroundings.
This species is nocturnal. They can be found near rivers, soaking up the sun like Sherly Crow during the day, and lying still in wait to ambush prey during the night, while camouflaged under dry leafs and jungle foliage.
The fer-de-lance is known for reacting defensively in most situations. They are extremely excitable and unpredictable. Capable of a sudden reversal of direction to defend themselves from any perceived danger, these snakes can move very quickly. This ambush snake has large eyes with a vertical pupil, and uses its highly-sensitive heat-detecting pit organ to detect prey.
Females can grow to be over 8 feet in length, and their fangs can be almost an inch long. This snake is easily distinguished by its unusually large V-shaped, broad head, and the females head can grow to be 2-3 times larger than the males heads.
The back of the snake has a dark, diamond pattern, sometimes compared to the pattern of a rattle snake. Pale yellow or cream colored bands crisscross the snakes body, resulting in the easily recognized diamond pattern. It is very difficult to spot, as its patterns in multiple shades of brown, blends in perfectly with the leaf-littered jungle floor.
Although most snakebites occur on the lower leg or ankle, the large size of the fer-de-lance, and its habit of raising its head high off the ground, can result in bites above the knee. And due to the snakes close proximity to human habitats, many bites actually occur indoors.
Their venom attacks the blood, causing clots that lead to death of surrounding tissue. In a short period of time the venom can cause a serious amount of damage, especially if not treated with antivenom within 1-2 hours of the bite. Quick medical treatment is the best chance to survive a bite from this vicious pit viper.
But the best thing to do is to practice awareness by trying to prevent any snakebites from occurring.
WAYS TO PREVENT SNAKEBITES:
1) never hike at night (and if you're crazy enough to do this, always bring a flashlight)
2) never hike alone
3) when hiking always wear high rubber boots, or thick hiking shoes with ankle protection. (and always remember to check inside your boots before putting them on). Do not hike barefoot, in tennis shoes or flip flops.
4) bring a walking stick with you to poke at the piles of dried leaves on the ground ahead of you on the trail
5) do not reach out to grab anything for support while hiking, always look where you need to grab first to ensure there is not a snake curled up in the spot you are reaching for
6) if you see a snake, always keep your eyes on it and try to distance yourself from the snake as much as possible, without making any sudden movements. If you are within striking distance of the snake and are carrying anything in your hands, such as clothing, a water bottle, or a walking stick, throw the item at the snake and it should concentrate on striking that item instead of you
7) garlic is a home remedy sometimes used to prevent snakebites. I've read of Tico farmers crushing a garlic clove and rubbing it all over their boots before working. Typically they put the remainder of the clove into their pockets while working, to repel snakes as well as insects. Garlic spray is another option, you can spray it onto your shoes, boots, clothing.
8) You can also take special care to avoid creating snake habitats around your home and garden. Keep the area around your home well mowed and check areas with a stick before chopping or weeding. Clean up any potential hiding spots, like junk piles, leaf piles, or wood piles.
9) dogs and cats patrolling your grounds at night also help to keep snakes away (a special thanks to the jungle dog Zorro who recently adopted us for keeping our house a snake-free zone)
HOW TO DEAL WITH A SNAKEBITE:
If you are bitten by this snake the first thing you need to focus on is remaining calm. You cannot die within a few minutes, and the most important thing is to prevent the person from becoming agitated and to immobilize the affected area to help slow the spreading of the venom.
Do not provide the person with any alcohol, do not use any kind of tourniquet, and do not attempt to suck the venom out of the wound. Get the person to the nearest medical facility immediately. Although it will be the furthest thing from your mind, it is beneficial to have a photo of the snake that bit you, so you can prove to the doctor which snake it was. It is dangerous to be given the wrong antivenom, and many times the doctors will want some sort of proof before administering antivenom. (I'm not sure which thought scares me more: being bitten by a snake, or having to chase him around after he bites me with my camera, trying to get a photogenic non-blurry picture of the creepy bastard)
I am a hippie at heart and have always believed that animals are intuitive. I talk to them in my mind, and out loud, and always let them know my intentions are pure and genuine. Animals are better listeners than most humans. When Andy and I do hike through the jungle, I talk to the snakes in my head. I let them know we are wishing to explore their territory but that we also wish to cause them no harm. I ask them to respect my space and I promise to respect theirs. I say a prayer and ask for protection, and that always makes me feel safer. Mother Nature listens, so talk to her.
Don't let the fear of a snakebite keep you locked inside your house, missing out on the beauty and nature this country is famous for. And yes, I'm talking to myself. Whenever I am feeling scared of snakes and find myself avoiding the outdoors, I remind myself that many terciopelo bites actually occur indoors…and that thought is usually enough to get me outside.
Kari Pinkerton Silcox
It would be a tragedy to die, having never really lived. Which is why my husband Andy and I quit our jobs, sold our house and decided to chase our dreams. We moved to Costa Rica without a plan, and this is the story of our adventure.