Diverse Costa Rica Keeps Snake Hunter Busy

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Updated September 11, 2003

Costa Rica is only about half the size of Kentucky, but for snake lovers it's a big slice of paradise. Over 130 different snake species call Costa Rica home—including some of the world's deadliest. Bushmasters, boa constrictors, coral snakes, and the deadly fer-de-lance are famous exotic reptiles that send a shiver down some spines.

Yet these fascinating snakes and many others are important to the balance of life in this lush tropical land. In National Geographic Ultimate Explorer's Snake Hunter: Costa Rica, renowned snake hunter Rom Whitaker treks from steamy lowland jungles to cool mountain cloud forests in pursuit of some of the world's most extraordinary snakes—many of which he has never seen before.

His adventures air on Ultimate Explorer on MSNBC.

Whitaker was born in the United States, but moved with his family to India at age 8. The move was a fortuitous one for a young snake lover, and it introduced him to a vast array of outstanding Indian snakes. He's spent a lifetime studying them, but they were nothing like those he recently tracked in Costa Rica.

"In these kind of lowland rain forests I expected to see some of the most fantastic snakes of my life," Whitaker told Ultimate Explorer. He wasn't disappointed. "Ever since I was a kid names like fer-de-lance and bushmaster have been magical to me."

The bushmaster, at up to 10 feet (3 meters) long, is the world's largest pit viper and a dangerous one. These snakes are legendary in Costa Rica, where their nickname is matabuey or ox-killer.

Bushmasters pick a likely hunting spot by using their sense of smell, and surrounding themselves with the kind of food that their prey likes to eat. They then lie in wait, sometimes for days, for their next meal of rat or bird. Infrared sensing pits enable them to hunt at night, when warm-blooded mammals are easier to find.

The team also uncovered the highly venomous coral snake. This generally non-aggressive species relies on a distinctive, brightly colored pattern to deter would-be predators. The ruse works so successfully that some 30 other non-venomous snakes have mimicked the coral snake and share similar color patterns. Knowing how to distinguish them can literally be a matter of life and death.

Perhaps the most feared snake of all, however, is the fer-de-lance—Central America's most lethal. Like most snakes, it prefers to be left alone, but it does sometimes bite humans with little provocation. The fer-de-lance bites several hundred people each year in Costa Rica, mostly agricultural workers who are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The snake hunts by ambush, lying camouflaged within the leaf litter on the forest floor. Many human victims simply get too close for the snake's comfort without realizing it's there—until the strike.

A bite is serious business because the snake's venom is incredibly toxic. Even a drop plays havoc within living tissue, devastating the victim's veins and capillaries. Internal swelling is so severe that doctors often remove the skin to release the pressure, and gruesome wounds result.

Yet only five or six people die each year from fer-de-lance bites, because of the ready availability of antivenin produced at the Clodomiro Picado Institute, which makes much of the anti-venom used all over Central America. At the institute over 200 venomous snakes, including the fer-de-lance, are regularly "milked" to produce lifesaving medicines.

Continued on Next Page >>


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