Approximately 90 miles away from Sao Paolo, Brazil is the Ilha de Queimada Grande or the “Snake Island”. No human being can step a foot on this chunk of land in the coast of Brazil for one simple reason: it is deadly. The snake island has the most extreme concentration of the most venomous snakes in the earth. This island is home to thousands of venomous snakes including the bathrops insularis, also known as the golden lancehead.
The myths, legends, and truth about the Snake Island.
The local community of Sao Paolo tells stories that there are people who have ventured into the island and has never returned. It is also a myth that a group of pirates brought the deadly snakes to the island to protect a treasure of gold.
It is a tale that a family once lived in the lighthouse of the island during the early 1920s. The family oversaw the operation of the lighthouse to help guide ships sailing to and from South America. The local community of Sao Paolo claims that not long after the family settled on the island, a tragic incident fell upon them. Snakes found their way inside the family’s house by slithering through a window one night. The snake had bitten all the family members and they died shortly after. Rescue workers from the government ventured into the island to look for the family, but they never returned. There are assumptions that they met the same fate.
Whether there’s truth in local legends or not, one thing is for sure; people have lived on the island during the early 1920s. The Brazilian navy closed the island to the public in the late 1920s. Trained navy personnel and a group of scientists conducts an annual trek. That is the only time that a person can set foot on the island. They tune up the lighthouse on the island and perform research experiments. The researchers study how they can use the snake’s venom in biopharmaceuticals.
The island is also a significant laboratory for scientist, researchers, and biochemists. They acquired special permission from the government to visit the island to study snake venom. The researchers would capture and study the snakes, and measure and weigh each snake they capture. They inject the snakes with a tracking serum to monitor them for the long-term. Afterward, the researchers release them and set them back to the wild.
What is a Golden Lancehead?
The golden lancehead is a venomous pit viper species. Their venom is three to five more potent than any of the mainland snakes and has a toxin can melt a human flesh to help predator’s ingestion of the prey. However, the only known home of the golden lancehead is Snake Island. These possibilities are less likely to happen because human beings do not inhabit the island. If it did happen though, there are no official and legitimate documentation of these cases.
Their habitat is a tropical or subtropical moist forest which consists of several kinds of habitats, including but not limited to, forests, clearings, and shrubs. The climate of the area is very mild, and the temperature never falls under 64 degrees Fahrenheit or above 78 degrees Fahrenheit.
Golden lanceheads only reside in the island of Queimada Grande. The island is only about 43 hectares, which makes these snakes critically endangered.
What does a Golden Lancehead look like?
Even though the chances of coming across a golden lancehead are low, it is important to know what they look like. An average lancehead can grow to an approximate length of 28 inches but it’s known to reach until 46 inches most in length. This snake’s color pattern consists of triangular and quadrangular patches, that can be wide or constricted, and alternating or opposite.
The patterns spread across the snake’s body which is pale yellowish in color. The snake’s belly is a mixture of pale cream and yellow in color. Unlike most snakes, golden lancehead doesn’t have to distinguish stripes on their belly. When experiencing captivity, their body’s color often turns into a darker shade.
The golden lancehead has a longer tail than the bathrops jararaca, known as jararaca, which is the golden lancehead’s closest relative. There are many lancehead species and their common name “lancehead”. The term refers to their well-defined and distinctive nose formation of all the bothrops genus snakes. These snakes have an elongated nose that comes to a point at the tip of their nose.
How does the Golden Lancehead behave and hunt their prey?
The golden lancehead is most likely to reside on a tree when they are hunting for prey since there are no ground-level animals they could prey on. This snake usually targets perching birds, but it they also consume lizards or even resort to cannibalism. Unlike other venomous snakes that tend to strike, release, and then track their prey. Golden lanceheads, on the other hand, keeps its prey in its mouth once they have envenomated them.
The researchers have observed other lancehead species wagging their tails to attract prey. On the other hand, the golden lancehead does not possess this kind of behavior. However, considering the presence of potential prey susceptible to caudal luring, and the opportunistic nature of the golden lanceheads.
It would not be surprising for them to eventually attain this kind of behavior. New-born golden lanceheads and juvenile snakes usually hunt invertebrates. The situation changes when the weather is unfavorable or if they have ingested prey. In these instances, the golden lanceheads usually reside under a rock for shelter.
How dangerous are Golden Lanceheads?
The golden lancehead is a very venomous snake. But there is no recorded bite from this snake as they inhabit an area which human beings doesn’t inhabit. The victims of these snakes most likely didn’t make it to the hospital. That would explain why there is no official documentation about the cases. However, other lancehead species are accountable for more human deaths than any other snakes in both North and South America.
The records of the golden lancehead’s venom chemical analysis suggest that it is the fastest acting venom. If a golden lancehead bites a human being, the fatality rate is up to 7% without medication. In these circumstances, high probabilities are the victim will die within an hour. If the victim receives medication, the mortality rate would go down to 3%. Say a victim ingests an anti-venom right away, there’s still a chance that the victim is still going to die.
The effects of lancehead venom include blood blisters, nausea and vomiting, blood in the vomit and urine, kidney failure, brain hemorrhage, pain and swelling, bruising, intestinal bleeding and severe necrosis of muscular tissue. The golden lancehead possesses a hemotoxic venom that softens flesh and dissolves tissue to help digest the prey.
Interesting Facts about the Golden Lancehead.
The mating season happens between August to September. Sexually mature golden lancehead mate in the ground or in the trees. A newborn golden lancehead is about the size of an average Jararaca, which is about 10 inches in length. During breeding, they can produce between 2 to 10 live young. Due to interbreeding, some of them are born with both male and female parts and are unable to breed.
There have been several research studies trying to find out where the snakes came from. It turned out that 11,000 years ago the island’s land mass was once attached to the mainland. Eventually, rising sea levels has separated the island from the coast. The snakes were stuck on the island since it separated from the mainland. They have multiplied rapidly because there are no known predators on the island to prey on the snakes and eat them. Realistically, it’s the snakes that rule the island.
There aren’t many prey animals on the island for the snakes to prey on either. But the snakes had the advantage because they can hang on a branch of a tree and catch a bird. Their venom is capable to instantly immobilize and kill migratory birds. These birds utilize the island as a pit stop for their long journey. The snakes on the island mostly rely on birds for consumption.
Recent updates about the Golden Lancehead.
Have you ever wondered if one of the most venomous snakes in the world can be as beneficial as being dangerous? The IUCN Red List classified the golden lanceheads as critically endangered. This is due to several reasons. The main reason and the main threat to animal endangerment is habitat destruction. Another threat to the future of this species is the relatively high occurrence of “intersexes”. This refers to the snakes that are born with both male and female sexual parts that are incapable of reproduction.
Aside from this factor, there has been an on-going demand in the black market looking for golden lancehead species. According to scientific research, the snake’s venom has displayed positive results and has the possibility to be able to cure heart disease. It also has the possibility to maintain a healthy circulation and blood clots. Snake venom from other species has also shown potential for curing cancer. This study has caused a demand for golden lancehead.
Scientists and animal collectors are willing to purchase golden lanceheads at a very high price. Some wildlife smugglers have illegally snuck into the island to catch some species. A single golden lancehead costs between 10,000 USD to 30,000 USD depending on its size and health. Since the black-market demand has risen, the population of snakes in Snake Island has reduced by 15% in the last 15 years. Therefore, marking the golden lancehead as critically endangered.