South America has a vast animal wildlife population. Tourists find the wild primate population fascinating especially along food market strips. Monkey’s beg for food and when food is withheld, stealing is an accepted alternative. Either way it is all quite entertaining. Iguanas lounge on park lawns and seem to have no fear of humans. Other reptiles are not so endearing to tourists or locals alike! Wild snakes tend to turn the bravest of arm chair animal experts into in door enthusiasts. There are far more non venomous species of snake in South America then venomous ones. The venomous species are mainly members of the pit viper family, snakes such as the Fer De Lance, the Neotropical rattlesnake and the Bushmaster are but three species of snake belonging to this advanced group of snakes. The most bites are delivered by the Fer De Lance who’s venom is virulent to say the least. Many tourists and residents have found them selves on the business end of massive fangs. This species of pit viper like others are most active after night fall. They hunt for rodents and other small mammals which at times brings them a little to close to human dwellings for comfort. Residents and tourists alike forget about the possible dangers after dark and walk along wooded paths with out proper footwear and end up stepping on the Fer De Lance. The venom is strongly protein bound and the area around the bite quickly becomes a swollen, blistering wound that is extremely painful and the loss of the affected area is a distinct possibility if not treated by a physician within a short period of time post bite.
The anti venom used to treat a bite is useful if the venom used in making the anti venom was from snakes gathered in the same general area as the snake that delivered the bite. South American species of Rattlesnakes and a few others have seemed to develop their own venom composition’s that differs from snakes of the same species whom are separated by geographical boundaries within South American countries. This could be caused by different prey animals available to them or different predators who prey upon them but what ever the reason it has been a real problem for those who treat the bites of humans. Some species of Rattlesnakes are born with a potent neurotoxic venom that changes as they mature into a protein based venom which affects the vascular system in mammals. This also poses a problem when treating a bite, was the snake an adult or a larger juvenile? Often multiple doses of varying types of venom have to be used in a trial and error type manor until the right anti venom is found.
The largest pit viper in South America or for that matter in the world is the Bush Master ( Lachesis muta ). This giant can reach lengths of nine feet and weigh over 20 pounds. It is a massive snake that is feared by most residents but is seldom seen because it inhabits dense wooded forests far from humans. The only bites usually recorded are from men who are in the deforesting lumber business and infringe upon the Bush Masters home range. It is almost never seen in or near city buildings other then in Zoos. Smaller pit vipers are often found inside city limits especially in areas that have large rodent populations. There are a few species and sub species of Elapids in the form of Coral Snakes and very few species of Sea Snakes which never bother inhabitants of South America. The Coral snakes only present a problem when someone picks them up thinking that they are simply colorful non venomous land snakes. The bright colors are called ” aposomatic colors” which warn predators that they are venomous and will defend themselves if molested. Often these snakes are handled and if not harmed they do not bite but this is not a wise practice. Coral snakes are related to cobras, krates and other well known snakes that are best left alone.
Travelers to South American countries are in no real danger if they use common sense and look where they place their hands and feet. The snakes of South America are no more dangerous then those of other countries, all they want is to be left alone and not harassed. The difference is, these snakes can and will defend themselves if the need arises. There are more deaths and amputations in South American countries then there are in North American countries mainly due to the number of health care facilities available to the residents of North America. If the health care system were equal in all areas the death rate would be fairly close to one and other. The amount of time between the bite and the institution of proper treatment, is crucial in any bite situation. Given proper treatment in less then two hours post bite and almost all involved will survive. Those who do not survive were probably given an intravenous bite or were sensitive to the venom injected and in that case almost nothing would have saved their life regardless of what was done, the trauma was simply to great and to fast.
To a herpetologist, South America is heaven on earth. The vast rain forest’s and mountainous terrain is a play ground built for exploring and finding new species of snakes. It holds the most varied species of arboreal ( tree dwelling ) snakes in the world. Pit vipers with the brightest colors imagineable dwell in the rain forests, some never touch the ground. Most are born live in the trees and feed upon small lizards and bugs their entire lives. Most will never see a human and will never cause any type of trouble to man. They keep the Eco balance in check and the rain forest alive and free from damaging insects. Most are considered harmful to man if they bite but few people ever die from the bite even if untreated. There are dangers in almost every environment where a human can travel to but there are no environments that are to dangerous to visit if the proper precautions and common sense are applied. South America is a wonderland for all to see and enjoy safely.