Zoology

An Overview of Central American Snakes and their Habitats



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Approximately 150 species of snakes can be found throughout Central America; with over 130 in the protected ecology of Costa Rica alone. While snakes can be found in every terrain in this region, most live in low to mid-elevation rainforest environments. Their most common prey are small rodents, a major reason why many Central American snakes are seen as friends to plantation owners. The vast majority of Central American snakes are non-venomous, with only 17 venomous species overall and most of those are very shy. However, any snake may bite if startled.

NON-VENOMOUS SNAKES

Two major families of non-poisonous snakes are found in Central America, the various boa constrictors and the colubrids, which by themselves represent almost half the snakes on earth.

Common Central American rainforest colubrids include the tropical rat snake, indigo snake, and speckled racer. Most of these snakes have green, brown, or black as a base colour, which allows them to blend into the dim vegetation of the tropical forest, either in the trees themselves or in the leaf litter underfoot. In contrast, both the harlequin snake and tropical kingsnake protect themselves by mimicking the brightly banded and venomous coral snake. Almost no colubrids are longer than about a metre; and most will flee vibrations made by large creatures such as humans.

Boa constrictors are the largest snakes found in Central America, with many adults being three metres or longer in length. Although boa constrictors consume their prey by wrapping around them and gradually suffocating (not crushing) them, they don't normally pose any danger to human beings. In fact, many people keep boa constrictors as pets.

VENOMOUS SNAKES

Venomous snakes of Central America belong to two families: the crotalids (pit vipers, a separate family from the true vipers of Eurasia and Africa) and the elapids, represented here only by the Pacific sea snake and the coral snake. Elapids have fixed, solid fangs at the front of their mouths, while the fangs of pit vipers are hollow and are normally folded back in the mouth. Pit vipers also have an extra, thermographic sense, the 'pit' which gives them their name, which allows them to track prey by their body heat.

Central American pit vipers include tropical rattlesnakes, tree vipers, hog-nosed vipers, the Godman's viper, the mano-de-piedra, bushmasters, and the feared fer-de-lance, so named because of the distinct 'lance' shape of its head. The greater part of pit viper venom is haemotoxic, making their bites extremely painful. Only bushmasters and the fer-de-lance normally grow over a metre in length, but these can reach two or three metres in length. Most crotalids are earth-coloured to blend into their surroundings (although bushmasters have a long black stripe down their length which serves to disguise their true speed), and will actively avoid human beings. However, the fer-de-lance has been known to not back down; and if provoked, it may actively pursue. Additionally, the young of the fer-de-lance are highly competitive for food, and thus are more likely both to be overlooked in the ground litter and to bite. The fer-de-lance is nocturnal, so particular care should be taken while walking through overgrowth at night; while during the daytime care should be taken not to startle sleeping snakes. It should be noted that most tropical rattlesnakes do not make the distinctive warning rattle of the North American rattlesnakes.

A dozen different species of coral snake can be found in the forests of Central America. All of them are brightly banded in yellow, orange, and black, and generally live in warm, damp leaf litter. Their poison is primarily neurotoxic, and the snake may tend to 'chew' it in. Like most snakes, they are not aggressive and will tend to flee heavy vibration.

Sea snakes are found only along the Pacific coast of Central America. Since most sea snakes prefer warmer waters, they tend to be rare near the Americas. These will hardly ever be more than a metre long, and are quite beautiful with the orange patterns on black. The venom of sea snakes is almost entirely neurotoxic, as opposed to the haemo-/neurotoxic mixtures of most other elapids, vipers, and pit vipers. Although they are among the most venomous known species of snake, they are also among the most shy and will try to flee whenever possible.

SNAKEBITE

In the tropical climate of Central America, any laceration can easily become infected, even if the bite itself was not poisonous. Medical attention should be promptly sought in the event of any bite. Poisonous bites will generally have two distinct puncture marks and may feel either numb (elapid) or burn (crotalid); as opposed to non-poisonous bites, which more commonly have a horseshoe shape. For rapid identification purposes, try to kill and bring with you any poisonous snake which bit you. First aid for poisonous bites is to push out venom or otherwise apply suction to the wound.

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