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.

Rom called the fer-de-lance "one of the supersnakes I've always wanted to find." Though he did capture one, it was only to remove it to a more remote area safer for both snakes and humans.

"I'm a snake hunter, not a collector," he explains. "The last thing I want to do is hurt one. The thing I love most is to discover snakes in the wild."

A Space For Snakes

Costa Rica still features lots of wild spaces for snakes. The nation's government is known for a progressive environmental policy that has established the nation as a top global ecotourism destination. Over 25 percent of the nation is protected by a system of national parks, refuges, and reserves. Such areas harbor some of Earth's richest biodiversity, an abundance of species who reside astride the narrow isthmus separating North and South America.

Snakes thrive in the country's wet, lush forests, as do the animals that constitute much of their prey. But to continue to protect these wild places and the creatures that call them home, we must better understand them.

Frogs, for example, are essential to the diet of many snake species— yet their status is unclear and sometimes troubling. In 1989 Costa Rica's legendary golden toad apparently became extinct, and many worry that other frog populations may be following. The reasons are unknown, and theories range from global warming to pesticides. Yet the results of plummeting frog populations can be anticipated.

A lack of frogs may well mean a lack of snakes, and the ramifications could follow throughout the food chain. The web of life is complex, and the role of snakes within it is still under study. Whitaker is on the frontline of such efforts, literally taking matters into his own hands by grasping some truly dangerous snakes to find out more about them.

Of course, most of Costa Rica's 1 million annual visitors never see a dangerous snake or any snakes at all. Just the thought of them, however, makes the tropical forests some people's worst nightmare. Not Whitaker. Costa Rica, he determined, was "a snake hunter's dream come true."

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