Sunday, May 2, 2010

Brazil's Snake Island

Off the shoreline of Brazil, almost due south of São Paulo, is Ilha de Queimada Grande (Snake Island). The small 100-acre island is untouched by human development, for the good reason that the island is infested with deadly poisonous snakes, a pit viper known as golden lancehead. It is estimated that between 5,00-7,000 golden lanceheads occupy the tiny island. The snake, which has no natural predators, feeds mainly on migrating birds and small lizards. Like most vipers, golden lanceheads give live birth to their young; August-September is mating season.

The snakes on Queimada Grande are a unique species of pit viper, the golden lancehead (Bothrops insularis), a genus of snakes responsible for 90% of Brazilian snakebite-related fatalities. Golden lanceheads are found in no other place on earth and grow to an average of only 20 inches long, but they possess a powerful fast-acting poison that melts the flesh around their bites. Unlike other venomous snakes that tend to strike, release, and then track their prey, the golden lancehead keeps its prey in its mouth once it has been injected with venom.

Each golden lancehead’s venom is five times more potent that of its closest relative, the fer-de-lance, responsible for most snakebite deaths in South America. This place is so dangerous that a special permit is required to visit.