Zoology

An Overview of Central American Snakes and their Habitats



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In Central America there are about 150 known species of snakes. The good news is that most of these are not poisonous. Even better news is that of the ones that are the most poisonous rarely bite. The best news of all is that even if bitten it is rare that death will occur. Feel better? Much of the tourism in Central America is eco based with hiking, rafting, camping or beach going at the top of the list. Knowing about the snakes, particularly the venomous ones is just a good idea.

THE MOST DEADLY

Sea Snakes are common on the Pacific coast throughout Central America. They are black and most often covered in orange spots. Sea Snakes grow to be one to two feet long. They are similar looking to an eel with its flattened tail. These snakes rarely bite even when cornered. Their venom is a neurotoxin much like that of a cobra and can be deadly if not treated immediately. Most bites occur when an unwitting person picks up a sea snake that has been stranded on the beach or is entangled in a fishing net.

Coral Snakes are injectors of neurotoxin just like the sea snake. These shy snakes rarely bite or less you step directly on them. There are a dozen different versions of this snake throughout Central America. Most prefer to burrow and they like swampy or damp woodlands. The most common colorings are a solid red body with alternating rings of black and yellow or black and white. There are at least a dozen varieties of non-poisonous snakes that resemble the coral snake and live in similar habitats.

THE REAL KILLERS

Tropical rattlers are probably the most aggressive of the tropical snakes. Found in dry rocky places they are pretty rare. They are aggressive and can strike high on the calf or even thigh. Their venom is a most toxic neurotoxin and should receive immediate medical care if bitten. Their venom is highly prized by the indigenous people of the Bocas del Toro region to glaze the tips of arrows and spears when hunting. This rattler rarely gives the rattle warning of his northern cousins in the US.

Fer-de-Lance is the snake that most often gives the fatal bite. These snakes have a lancet shaped head and are usually dark brown to black with yellow or grey marking down the center of their backs. Slender and lightening fast they are often found near people in or around plantations and farms. Their range encompasses the whole of Central America. They really like to eat at night and love a plump rodent for dinner. This is why they are attracted to untidy campsites, farms and plantations. The newborns are the most dangerous as they are full of vim and venom. Often times they will still be around in the morning and may be attracted to the moths around a lantern. Watch out around stacks of food and gear especially in the spring.

Bushmaster is the largest of the poisonous vipers found in Central America. There are tales of 12 to 15 foot specimens but they are most likely to be in the 5 to 6 foot range. Rusty red to brown in color with a black stripe that runs from head to tail. Little down pointing triangles are attached to the stripe and are joined by black half circles around the belly. Their color scheme helps them to blend into forest and scrub. If you make some noise while walking a trail these guys will usually get out of the way. Usually found in the remote parts of the tropical rainforest.

The Fer-de-Lance and the Bushmaster are both pit vipers. They can sense the heat of your body long before you see them. Their venom is a hemotoxin which acts on the circulatory system. The Fer-de-Lance is the venomous snake that most people are likely to come into contact with.

Boas and pythons are the largest snakes in Central America. They come in all colors and sizes but are not poisonous. It is not a good idea to provoke them as they can give a nasty bite which can cause a dangerous infection.

Any snake bite in the Tropics is serious whether the snake is poisonous or not. It is always a good idea to seek treatment immediately. Young snakes may be more aggressive in the springtime simply because they are hungry. During dry spells snakes are more likely to turn up in populated areas in search of food and water. Peterson's field guide for reptiles is my favorite quick reference. With 150 snakes to see in Central America it is a handy book to have in your bag.

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