Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Real 'Snake Island'


Off the shore of Brazil, almost 93 miles away from São Paulo downtown, is Ilha de Queimada Grande...better known as 'Snake Island.' A deserted island where the forest floor writhes with the world's most venomous vipers. There are the stories...a fisherman found dead on his boat, its deck awash with his blood and a lighthouse keeper and his family massacred in a nocturnal snake invasion of their isolated cottage home.

The island is untouched by human developers, and for very good reason. Researchers estimate that on the island live between one and five snakes per square meter. That figure might not be so terrible if the snakes were, say, 2 inches long and nonvenomous. The snakes on Queimada Grande, however, are a unique species of pit viper, the Golden Lancehead Viper (Bothrops insularis). The Lancehead genus of snakes is responsible for 90% of Brazilian snakebite-related fatalities. The Golden Lanceheads that occupy Snake Island grow to well over half a meter long, and they possess a powerful fast-acting poison that melts the flesh around their bites. Golden Lanceheads are so dangerous that, with the exception of some scientific outfits, the Brazilian Navy has expressly forbidden anyone from landing on the island.


The venom these snakes inject is so powerful that it can kill two men at once. This venom is fast-acting too, since it simply melts the flesh surrounding the bite. The scaly creatures breed all year round, producing 50 babies each time. With no enemies, the snakes have been able to take over the island and populate it quite freely. They survive mainly on migratory birds that use the island as a resting point.

Locals in the coastal towns near Queimada Grande love to recount two grisly tales of death on the island. In one, a fisherman unwittingly wanders onto the island to pick bananas. Naturally, he is bitten. He manages to return to his boat, where he promptly succumbs to the snake's venom. He is found some time later on the boat deck in a great pool of blood.

The other story is of the final lighthouse operator and his family. One night, a handful of snakes enter through a window and attack the man, his wife, and their three children. In a desperate gambit to escape, they flee towards their boat, but they are bitten by snakes on branches overhead.

Marcelo Duarte, a biologist who has visited Snake Island over twenty times, says that the locals' claim of one to five snakes per square meter is an exaggeration, though perhaps not by much. One snake per square meter is more like it. Not that that should ease one's mind: At one snake per meter, you're never more than three feet away from death. - atlasobscura.com / odditycentral.com

National Geographic Film Crew Meets 'The Golden Killer!'

We were on the uninhabited mysterious Brazilian island of Queimada Grande to make a film about some incredibly venomous snakes. With our crew were scientists from Instituto Butantan, a huge venom-research facility in Sao Paulo.

I’d long wished for a trip to a deserted island—a place where I could look for miles around and see just about nothing. No humanity, no cities, only the Atlantic Ocean forever.

I got my wish, mostly. (There were a few fishing boats around, and if the day was clear I could see another island in the distance.) But we really had come to one of the most rugged places I’ve ever been.

Our boat could only come within about 150 meters (164 yards) of the island. We had to take an inflatable dinghy the rest of the way, then scramble up a sheer, rocky slope which I heard described as“slippery as snot” and which was coated with potentially hand-slicing barnacles. No beach at all on Queimada Grande.


And when we hiked up steep and bushy trails populated by nesting seabirds, we know that if we tripped, it could have been the last mistake we’d make. Thousands of deadly snakes, called golden lanceheads, were lying in wait for their next victims. I could only hope they preferred birds over people.

I’d been looking forward to camping on the island for four days, but it was hard to constantly remember that I could never let down my guard—no leaning on trees when I’m tired, no sitting on stumps after a grueling hike, no anything without examining the area first.

“There’s one right next to you—MOVE!” yelled herpetologist Brady Barr on our first long day. So what did I do? I froze. Bad idea.

Right next to me was one of the most venomous snakes in the world. It was a golden lancehead, a species that lives on Queimada Grande and nowhere else in the world.

The biggest reason the island is so deserted is that these snakes cover the island. Experts say there’s one golden lancehead here per square meter (1.2 square yards). Each golden lancehead’s venom is five times more potent that of its closest relative, the fer-de-lance, responsible for most snakebite deaths in South America.

“Which side is he on, which side, which side?” I shrieked, while I stood there, feet frozen with fear. “Just move!” Brady bellowed.

In a split second Beto, a crewmember, pulled me backward. I finally saw my would-be assassin. It was a small snake, no more than a foot (0.3 meter) long. But as I watch its lancelike head pulling back after its thwarted attempt to bite me in the waist, I realized I’d never come so close to death.

I had actually aided the camouflaged snake in its assault, just by standing there. The Golden Lancehead is a pit viper, so it hunts by sensing heat through little pits in the side of its face. By standing still I had made myself like a little burner, and a better target.

The whole crew faced the same danger I faced each minute we were there. We’re grateful that the remarkable images and information we gathered were worth the risk.
- National Geographic - 'Snake Island'

NOTE: I have been told that the Brazilian government is attempting to remove any information that would encourage people to visit the island. I did notice that many of the videos about the location have been pulled...especially those promoting fishing off shore. I suppose curiosity would get the better of some people leading to certain death and liability. Lon

Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature

Smithsonian Handbooks: Reptiles and Amphibians (Smithsonian Handbooks)

Venomous Snakes of the World

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