Snakes of Central America
Dr. A.K. Williams, Ph.D
San Pedro, Costa Rica
Introduction

Don’t know exactly why I am on this subject, I am no Herpetologist. I guess it’s because I get a lot of mail asking about snakes here in Central America. Lots of folks seem to have received a lot of bad information or are just sort of paranoid about snakes in general.

First thing let me put a couple of old wives tales to rest.

Number one. There ain’t NO SUCH THING as the infamous "two step snake". Get bit and before you can take two steps, you are dead. Baloney, it ain’t gonna happen. Not here, not in USA, not in any other place on this planet. You wouldn’t die that fast if someone cut your head off with one good swipe with a machete. The fastest thing that could happen is that it scares you so bad that you go down from a heart attack.

Second. There is also the snake that just runs you down and bites you. He don’t exist either. Growing up in South Georgia we had a snake called the "Coachwhip". A long, thin snake that would run you down and whip you to death with his tail.

Have you ever seen a scared man with a snake after him run? Hell, it’s doubtful that a good racehorse could catch him in under a furlong. Again, it don’t exist.

I did see something similar once when I was about 15 years old in South Georgia. A friend and I needed some fish bait and decided we would catch some crawfish. Had no equipment except for a couple of fishing lines. So we decided to catch the bait in a more laborious but time-honored way. We got a couple of thin switches of Gallberry or other suitable material. We then poked these switches down the holes that the Crawfish dig in wet, soggy soil. If you keep pushing the stick in and out rapidly, the resident Crawfish becomes disturbed and exits the hole and you grab him. On this day my friend, who was really paranoid about ANY snake, was coaxing a crawfish hole when, instead of the usual Crawfish, a very angry snake came up out of the hole. Guess the snake was excited too because, wouldn’t you know it, it went right up the leg of the overalls that he was wearing. Man, all I saw was a streak of white light where Byron had been. We had been driving an old cut-down Plymouth. Before I could get maybe 30 yards to that truck it was too late to catch him. He made 1 1/2 miles to town faster than I did. We did recover the snake. It was a harmless banded water snake but, till this day, he would tell you that it was a 9-foot Cottonmouth.

Hey, we also have the famous "jumping snake". This is a Toboga. He has the habit of thrashing his tail when he strikes. This, somehow gives folks the impression that he can "jump" several feet and bite you. Forget it. It is baloney!

Nuff sea stories. Back to basics.

 

The Snakes of Central America

First let me say I am not going to cover all the snakes that we have here. It would take too much time and would be of little value. All of Central America has, in general, the same snakes. Maybe different varieties, but pretty much the same. I am going to speak mostly of Costa Rica but it applies to all of Central America.

There are, in Costa Rica, 135 species of snakes. That’s a lot! The good news is that only 17 species are poisonous. Now of the 17 venomous species one is the deadliest, the Sea Snake that inhabits quiet protected coves of the Pacific Coast. This critter is very well mannered and never bothers anyone.

We have two species of poisonous Coral Snakes ("Corral" in Spanish). The Corral Macho (Corralillo), and the Gargantilla. We also have the very similar but non-poisonous Corral Falsa.

These snakes are NOT pit vipers. Sea Snakes, Corral Snakes, are in the same group with Cobras, etc. They are not very dangerous unless you are exceptionally stupid. None of these snakes have the long, forward located fangs of the pit vipers. You have seen those tee shirts with the picture of a giant, threatening, Cobra with the huge 3 inch fangs? Well, he don’t exist either. ALL these snakes have very small fangs and the good part for us is that these fangs are NOT located in the front of their mouth. The Cobra, I believe, has fangs about halfway down his upper jaw. The Corral’s fangs are at the very rear of their mouth. Almost in their throat. This characteristic makes it very difficult for a Sea Snake or a corral to bite you. They pretty much have to have something already in their mouth before they can deliver the venom. Before someone jumps on me, let me say that a large Cobra CAN bite you simply because he is so big that he can get your arm etc in his mouth.

The Corral Snakes of Central America are somewhat larger than you are used to in The US but still pretty small. They can attain a length of about 90cm (40 inches). The Sea Snake is about the same size. Would you believe that we used to carry Corral Snakes to school, in our pockets, to scare the girls? I guess that would be about same as carrying an AK47 to school now. Times do change!

O.K., now lets get to the ones that you might want to watch out for. These are called here "Tobobas" (pit vipers). These critters are all in the family Viperidae, genus’s Agkistrodon, Lachesis, Crotalus, and Bothrops. Any of these suckers can hurt you bad. Some can kill you deader than last night’s beer. The group that I, personally, like the least is the Bothrops/Lachesis groups. Why? Well, it’s because, in my experience, they tend to be more aggressive than the others are. They don’t always run when they have a chance like Rattlers, Cottonmouths, etc. Often they will just sort of come at ya.

I won’t try to name and describe all of these snakes. I will mention a few of the more common ones that you just might come across while mining/dredging in Central America. First I will just give you a shopping list and describe some of the characteristics later.

We have the Moccasin, Castellana or Cantil. The Cascabel or rattlesnake (much like the eastern Diamondback). The Mano de Piedra or "hand of stone". The Toboga Chinga or naked pit viper. The Tamaga in the low altitudes of the Atlantic coast. The Toboga de Altura, the high altitude pit viper. Now a real beauty, the Bocaraca or Orapel, or Eyelash Viper. This thing is gaudy! Yellow, red, with those eyelash-like horns. He is elegant. Now, we also have a group of tree snakes. The Lora or Green Tree Snake. He is the curse of the Banana workers because he is grass green and is near impossible to see among leaves. Up in a tree, he usually manages to bite the upper part of the body. Neck, upper arms, etc. There is the Vipero de Arbol. The tree viper. He is sort of mottled green too. I will only mention two others. BOTH, of which I do TRULEY respect. One is the Tercopelo (velvet snake), or in English, the Fer-de –Lance (iron spear). The other is his big cousin, the Mata Buey (Ox-killer) or Cascabel Mudo (silent rattlesnake) or in English the Bushmaster. Any "wet bite" by either of these and you will certainly lose some part of your anatomy. An arm, a leg, a big hunk of your foot, or maybe the whole ball game. These ol boys don’t play around and they got no sense of humor at all.

Most of the above mentioned snakes are pretty big by US standards but these last two are not only big, they are aggressive and there are a lot of them.

Another snake story. About a year ago we were trying to get the dredge up the Rio Conte. We ran out of road and hired a farmer to transport or gear with his big 4WD tractor and his "rice trailer" (no springs, rice got no feeling in its ass). While thumping along over three foot rocks, trying to hold on to the rear post of the trailer, quite a job really. I was trying to stay upright beside the small end of my 4 inch Flair Jet when a VERY ticked off Terciopela decided that he was leaving that crap. He exited about six inches from my foot. He was only about 3 ft long. But I couldn’t do anything and he is well within striking distance. O.K., 3 ft, he would only keep you in the hospital for a few months and you might not even lose a leg. I had anti-venin, but - - - -. Fortunately, a local kid hanging on the opposite post was able to get his gumboot on him so that I could stomp that sucker flat. My later worry was "how did that undesirable get in my dredge and how long had he been there"? Still don’t know.

Most of the above mentioned snakes range in size from about three feet to the Terciopela at 2.3 meters (near 8 feet) and the Bushmaster at 2.6 meters (nearly nine ft). BTW, the largest snake here is the Baker. I think he gets up to around 3.5 meters (12 feet). He ain’t poisonous but can get your attention if you happen to meet him unexpectedly. Might say too that most any of the snakes can, and will, bite. It hurts and can be very bloody for awhile. They almost all have an anti-coagulant in the saliva that prevents blood from clotting. Most of their prey dies from blood loss before they can be swallowed.

What can a feller do? The good news is that there is a laboratory in Coronado that is, I think, the only laboratory in the world that makes an antivenin for all the snakes here except for the sea Snake and the Corrals. I know they were the first. I always carry 40 ml of it with me.

The bad news is this antivenin is, like most, the gamma globulin fraction from immune horse or sheep blood. I know that don’t mean a damn thing to most of you but it would if you had to use it. After the first 10 ml shot it will take two strong men and a spotted pony to hold you down for the other three. Gamma globulin is pure protein and when injected in your - - - trasero, HUUUURRTS! Your system will definitely tell you that you are neither a horse, a sheep, or a snake. It’s ALL gonna hurt. That is why I, in my great bio-wisdom, also carry a LARGE ampoule of Lidocaine. That should help some if used first. A numb ass is better than no ass at all. All these shots I’m talking about are 10 ml, 4 each. That comes out to be about 2 oz or cup. That’s a bunch. Just for thought. You guys in the states who carry snake anti-venin might want to invest in some Lidocaine too. Snakebites are extremely painful and the cure is just as painful as the bite, about the same thing, actually.

Another little piece of advice. When using any anti-venin. Sometimes folks forget to tell you that about 2% of the population are allergic to sheep and horse gamma globulin. If you happen to be one of those, it could do you more damage than the bite. You could go into anaphylactic shock and die within minutes. To prevent this you should, immediately after being bitten, inject a tiny amount under the skin and wait 2-3 minutes. If it turns an angry red, DON’T use any more, just go like hell for the nearest clinic/hospital. Another, faster, way is to simply fill your syringe with the anti-venin and put one small drop in your eye. If you are allergic, in about 30 seconds your eye will look like the day after the high school graduation party, RED. You might want to carry a small mirror for this in case you are alone. If either of these tests turn red, STOP. Don’t shoot yourself with a full load of that immune serum. It could do you fatal damage. If in doubt about this, check with the manufacturer.

 

Some Facts and Info about Snake Venom

How come snakes and everything about them have so much misinformation and old wives tales attached to them? Think folks just don’t trust anything that crawls on its belly. Most don’t like worms, slugs, snails, or centipedes either.

How many times have I heard the old phrase, "that snake has a "nerve poison". That snake doesn’t have "nerve poison, it’s different". Forget it, it ain’t that way. I have used various snake venom’s in the laboratory near all my life and I do know a little about them. Used to use them just like any other lab reagent or chemical. They are great for dissolving protein, destroying DNA or RNA, and lots of other uses. What they are NOT is a single thing. ALL snake venoms are a mixture of dozens of things. Near all of them very bad for you if they get in your blood, muscle, lymphatic, or nervous system. Just about all of these nasty things are what we call "enzymes". I’ll bet every one of you has heard that term and I’ll also bet there aren’t 10% that know what the word means. Not that you aren’t interested or incapable of understanding, it’s because the person who told you what it is didn’t know his - - - trasero from his elbow. HEY, guys, we gonna get a little "biological" here! And, that is what I like best! Cause it’s what I do best! When you finish this page you can tell the health food nuts to kiss - - - ol glory, cause there ain’t one in a million that has the slightest idea what a protein or an enzyme is. If you doubt me, try it tomorrow at the Waffle House. There are always a lot of experts on such things found in joints like that. Damn, I knew I would figure some way to introduce biochemistry into this site and spread the good word to all that want to learn.

First, there is a great, huge group of organic chemicals that we call "proteins". Now remember, "organic" means any chemical that contains Carbon. That is one helluva lot of things. There are things called "amino acids" (this is what soap is composed of). Now if we connect a whole bunch (1,000’s) of these amino acids together in a certain way, we then have a protein. Simple, right? It is! There is no magic (remember Merlin)? These are not strange, magic, and secret things that only ignorant, health food nuts know about. They are just chemicals. They are very large chemicals and we usually refer to them as "polymers".

Now, proteins make up a large proportion of the functioning parts of your body. Your muscles are protein, your blood cells are largely protein, your hair and fingernails are protein, etc, etc. Obviously, these proteins can take many forms. After all, you can tell the difference between a muscle, a blood cell, and your hair, right? Health food nuts can’t, cause 99% are so ignorant that it should be illegal. They never bother to check their source of information.

O.K., now we got this BIG bag of things called proteins that we can’t even recognize. Got to sort this out somehow. We usually separate them into classes. E.g. structural proteins and non-structural proteins. The former, are things like your hair and fingernails. It is a "thing". You can see it and feel it. The later are more subtle. They are proteins that you can’t see, feel, or even see under a microscope. They are like the protein that dissolves starch (a polymer of sugar) in your mouth and break it down into simple sugar that your body can use for energy to shovel gravel. You can’t see it. Wouldn’t know it was there if you weren’t a Basement Chemist.

Now, kick back, kick the dog if you are that frustrated. He probably won’t mind too much if you give him a little Alpo afterward. Think about what we got here. Just a big bucket of ore that hasn’t been hi-graded into concentrates yet. Stick with me. Us science types have to work with cons too. Otherwise, nothing makes any sense. Gonna put this crap through a 5 inch triple and sift out the good stuff.

All right, let’s put it through another screen and see what is left that we can use. If we take all those non-structural proteins dump em in the Hi-banker and give them a good shake we can sift out some of those proteins that we are going to call, what else? ENZYMES! Yeah, Ain’t ya proud of me? I am! Thought I would never get this far, much less tie it to nasty snakes. That part is yet to come, if I don’t get lost along the way.

This is important! If you don’t read this, you wasted our time. ALL SNAKE VENOMS ARE 99.9% ENZYMES. An enzyme is a protein that has the ability to cause a biochemical reaction to occur. They are catalysts. They make reactions go thousands of times faster than would happen without them. These are potent things. They cause it all to happen and happen NOW. If you had an enzyme that catalyzed the chemical reaction between Gold and Chlorine you could put in a tiny amount in a 10,000 gal tank and instead of waiting 18 months for the Gold to dissolve it would probably dissolve in 30 minutes. That is what an enzyme does. Hope ya got that. If I lost anyone get to me. We’ll do it some other way.

I gotta go to the fridge for an Imperial. You have my permission to grab a Bud or one of those strange ones you got in US now. Hey, we have hi-graded proteins from maybe a hundred million down to maybe 20, 000. That’s a hell of a job for just one day.

You want to see what an enzyme can do? Cut a little piece of steak off the wife’s freezer stock. I didn’t tell you to do it! Now cut that in half. Sprinkle some Adolph’s meat Tenderizer on one piece and nothing on the other. Wrap them in Saran and stick them back somewhere. Hidden from the wife, of course. Watch them for several hours or even a day or two. That Adolph’s is an enzyme called Papain. It is obtained from the latex that runs out when you cut the skin of a green Papaya. That is an enzyme in action. It will literally dissolve the meat (muscle, protein). One protein chewing on another. You get it, Papaya, Papain, We got a system too.

Damn, I am nearly there. I can see a light. Dim, but I’m sure it’s there. Snakes, how do I get back to that subject. I’ll think of sumpin. Always another way to skin the cat. Not sure I have caught him yet. That sucker is moving fast today. Or, is it me that’s moving slow? Relativity, should we talk about Einstein, et.al.? Not today! We’ll save it for a holiday.

Right, now that we all know about polymers, proteins, etc lets get back to snake venom. Snake venom is composed of quite a few enzymes that we refer to as "anabolic enzymes". That refers to enzymes that break things down, destroy their structure. There are others, "metabolic enzymes", that tend to build things up and provide energy for the body. You have heard of metabolic steroids, right? They tend to build muscle, etc. Anabolic steroids would tend to tear it down. See, it’s all just a little language thing. Sometimes on TV they get it backwards, but that ain’t our problem. We know how it works.

Among this host of enzymes that is in snake venom there are several classes. We going to put those cons through a Gold Screw now to concentrate a little more.

Now, we have several kinds of enzymes in snake venom. You will note that most enzymes end with the letters –ase. A protease breaks down proteins. A phosphatase breaks down phosphate compounds, a nuclease breaks down nucleic acids, etc. There are some other things that are called Cholinesterase inhibitors. Cholinesterase is an enzyme in your nervous system that controls the nerve impulses. Acetyl choline is a chemical that acts as an insulator between your nerve cells. Acetlyl cholinesterase destroys the insulator and allows nerve impulses to flow when some stimulus such as pain or heat is detected. That’s how you know to get your hand off the hot stove. These cholinesterase inhibitors stop the action of Acetyl cholinesterase and allow the nerves to just transmit impulses continually. That will result in a spasm or convulsion. Your nervous system cannot handle that much information in such a short time. This is the basis for "chemical warfare" agents. They are anti-cholinesterase agents. Deadly things!

Snake venom contains all of these enzymes/chemicals. Now, if that don’t scare you enough, think what happens when all these things hit you at once?

One of the first things, after a bite, is that you will notice is intense pain. That is mostly the aniti-cholinestrase agents allowing your nerves to transmit pain impulses with nothing to slow them down. The affected part will sometimes go into a spasm. Next thing to worry about is your lymphatic system. This is sort of a shallow, surface system. Part of your immune system. You have "nodes" that sort of strain out bacteria and such. It can do very little for enzymes though. That venom can destroy the lymph system, and do it fast. One of the first things you want to do is tie a string, cord, something, around the affected part (if possible). Not real tight! Not enough to cut off blood supply, but it will shut down the lymphatic system.

Now, very quickly, the nucleases go to work. They destroy the genetic material of any cell that it can contact. That effectively kills that cell for good and all.

Now the really nasty, destructive, part starts. These are the proteases. Remember Adolph’s meat tenderizer? These enzymes start dissolving nearly any protein it can come in contact with. Muscle, blood, skin, lymphatic tissue, just about anything that you depend on to keep ticking. This is usually the part that simply dissolves a pound or so of your leg that can never grow back.

I have a good friend here who is a botanist/naturalist. He takes tourists out in the woods to commune with nature, etc. A few years ago he got a good wet bite by a Terciopelo. Almost lost the leg. The lymphatic system was nearly completely destroyed. Six years later, he still had to bandage the leg two/three times a day to prevent lymph fluid from filling his shoes and getting his socks all soggy. Good news is that they did save the leg and he went to Miami a couple of years ago for some new repair job that dried up the leg. Now he just has one leg 100% scar tissue, but at least it works.

Another guy I know, a Tico, campasino, went down to the river just before dark to wash up. Got hit by a Mata Buey on his bare foot. Took him some 7 hours to get to a clinic. He nearly died and lost about half of his right foot. I could go on but I think you get the idea. These snakebites can be Baaaaad! Ruin your whole day! As a biochemist, I can think of very few things that can do you more damage, other than just dropping you dead in a few minutes, than potent snake venom. It’s really nothing to laugh about, or to take lightly.

There is a lot of talk, usually on TV; about this is the most poisonous snake in the world, etc. This is Bullshit! The most poisonous snake in the world is the one that bites YOU. You might get a Mata Buey that in the morning feasted on a Squirrel or somesuch and blew his venom bag for a couple of days. If he hits you, you will probably get a "dry bite". He meant business, but just didn’t have the venom on hand to get the job done. You can walk away from that one. I have another friend, a lady who grew up in the campos. She got bit by a Bocaraca when very young. The snake hit her on the back of her hand. The fangs hit bone and couldn’t penetrate, the snake couldn’t exude the venom, and she walked away from it without even seeing an MD.

Venom can be measured as to its potency for protease activity, nuclease activity, etc but it is much too complicated to say that this snake can kill you quicker than that one. Depends on too many things. Species of snake, size of snake, when did he last dump a load of venom, where did he hit you, did you have anti-venin, did you panic, did you have a weak heart, etc, etc.

Some classes of snakes have a preponderance of one type of venom over another. Snakes like Cobras, Sea Snakes, corral Snakes do have more of the Anti-cholinesterase type of chemicals than, for example, pit vipers. But, the pit vipers have much more proteases and nucleases than the Cobra etc. Which is worse? Either one can kill you. Is being dead one way worse than being dead by another? I don’t think so.

Got one more snake story. Two men that I knew when growing up in South Georgia, many years later, were out in the country and decided to go fishing. They dug around under some logs etc and found enough worms for bait so they spent the afternoon fishing. I wasn’t there but this is the story that was told. One of the guys, called Ovid, kept telling his friend all afternoon, that every time he tried to bait his hook, the worms tried to bite him. Sort of a joke. After a few hours he told his buddy that he was really feeling bad and thought he would quit and go home. So, they split. When they got back to town Ovid was really sick and his buddy took him to a local clinic where he was really sick and a few hours later, died. An investigation revealed that the "worms that he had grubbed up were not worms but very small, 2 inch or so, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. Them suckers, over a few hours, got enough venom in his blood stream, to kill him. I can’t believe a guy that grew up on a South Georgia farm could mistake snakes for worms. But, it happened! This is no sea story. Don’t know what he was smoking/drinking that day but it must have been good stuff.

Venomous snakes are born with a full load of venom. Pound for pound, just as potent as mama or papa.

 

Cures and other Magic Treatments for Snake bites

This will be short because in spite of all the Indian remedies, old wives tales, high-voltage stun-gun treatments, there ain’t one that will do you one damn bit of good after a good, wet, snakebite. It’s anti-venin, cut-down-and-suction, or nothing.   Also, don't forget that if you try the time-honered method of a deep cut at the fang punctures you run the risk of also cutting an artery. Again, that could be worse than the bite.  Of course, any of  treatments depends on the circumstances that you are in.  If you are near medical help, let them do it.  If you are in the boonies and a long way from help then, in my opinion, a little first-aid would be called for.

In spite of all the crap that has been generated about the stun-gun treatment for bites, I want to ask a question. Is there even one of you out there that knows where that tale got started? Just one? Please e-mail me if you do, because that will make two of us.

Let me tell you what I have learned. True or not, it’s the best that I can find. A few years ago some English lady was in, I think, Africa somewhere. Someone got bit and shocked himself with the high-voltage from the coil of a vehicle that was available. He didn’t die. The lady wrote it up as an article and sent it to a British medical/science journal. I think it was Nature. Could have been Lancet but I think Lancet would have at least read it before publishing such trash. Anyway, it was published by a half-assed journal. It got snapped up immediately by manufacturers of "stun-guns" and advertised all over the world with no more evidence than someone got bit, shocked himself, and didn’t die. Gentlemen, his is crap in it’s absolute most basic form.

I was smoking a Cuban Cigar when a car hit me. I didn’t die so obviously the Cuban Cigar saved my life. That sort of reasoning has a name that I can’t bring up right now but it is so ridiculous as to not be worth the time to look it up.

The moon, every few years, appears green for some reason. We all know that Roquefort cheese is green, right. So, it follows that the moon is made of green cheese. How DAMN ridiculous can people be.

It would be so simple to check out the efficacy of using a stun-gun to "destroy" snake venom that it wouldn’t take 1 hour of time to do it. No professional would waste an hour of his time on it. It is patently ridiculous.

Hang with me Guys,

No Telling where we will go Next!

This document maintained by A.K. Williams. Material Copyright © 2001 A.K. Williams

Optimized for use with Communicator 4© and Internet Explorer© 4.0