Snake Island

Snake Island, Brazil

Imagine a beautiful, tiny island located in the Atlantic Ocean, about 25 miles off the coast of Brazil. Here you’ll find tropical weather, luscious rainforests, and a breathtaking coastline. But the island’s creepiest residents are several thousand deadly snakes.

This island is called Ilha da Queimada Grande but it is better known as Snake Island. On the island, there are between 2,000 to 4,000 deadly snakes. There is at least one snake per square meter, so if you were to take several steps, you are likely to come across another snake!

The island is the only home to the golden lancehead (a type of pit viper). It is one of the most venomous and endangered snakes on earth. This snake is yellowish brown in color with a black-tipped tail and can grow from over a foot and a half to well past three feet in length. Its venom is three to five times stronger than that of any mainland snakes. If the golden lancehead bites someone, it can melt human flesh, and that person could be dead within an hour.

You may wonder how all these snakes arrived on an island located so many miles from the mainland. Actually, the snakes appeared over thousands of years on their own.  Approximately 11,000 years ago, sea levels rose to separate Snake Island from Brazil. The species that then lived in Brazil were called jararaca snakes. This same species became stranded on Snake Island and began increasing in population because they didn’t have any ground-dwelling predators. Without having any food sources, the snakes began slithering up trees to prey upon birds that migrated to the island. Over time, their venom became much stronger because they had to compete for food, and they had to kill the birds instantly so they wouldn’t fly away.

Golden Lancehead. Photo by Otavio A.V. Marques, a scientific researcher from Brazil working with the golden lancehead species to find cures for illnesses. 

Over many years, the golden lanceheads developed a method of attacking their prey. The golden lanceheads coil up and draw the tip of their tail close to their head. The movement of their tail helps to attract birds. They then strike their prey and wait for the poisons to take effect. They paralyze, or prevent their prey from moving, so that they can melt its flesh to make it easier to swallow whole.

No humans live on the island now, but some did for a while up until the late 1920’s. A lightkeeper and his family lived there to maintain the island’s lighthouse. According to legend (a story believed by many people but not proven to be true) several snakes entered their home through some open windows. As a result, the entire family was bitten and soon died. Another legend involved a fisherman who arrived on the island looking for bananas. He was later found dead in his boat with snake bites all over his body.

It is now illegal for anyone to step upon the island without special permission from the Brazilian government. The Brazilian navy makes a yearly visit to maintain the island’s lighthouse and to trim surrounding trees and plants. Scientists and researchers are the only other groups allowed to visit, but they must bring a doctor along in case they need to be treated for a snake bite.

Scientists and researchers are studying the golden lanceheads’ venom to support health issues. Brazilian scientist, Marcelo Duarte, who studies venomous reptiles for medical purposes, described the potential of the golden lancehead. “We are just scratching the world of possibilities for using this venom,” he said. He further commented that golden lancehead venom has shown promise in helping with heart disease, blood circulation, and blood clots.

Unfortunately, the golden lanceheads are now considered critically endangered, which means they are at high risk of becoming extinct. Wildlife smugglers who trap the snakes and sell them illegally for thousands of dollars have caused a decrease in their population. Also, snakes captured for scientific studies have added to the problem. Removal of some of the island’s trees and plants by the Brazilian navy as well as disease among the golden lanceheads have also reduced the snake population by approximately 50 percent in the last 15 years. This may come as good news to people but not for the snakes!

Isn’t it fascinating that something so beneficial could come from something so deadly? However, if different approaches aren’t taken, we could lose the golden lancehead species forever. This could mean throwing away the key to a future of life saving medications and procedures. Protecting and preserving nature can truly help everyone.

SIDEBAR: If you would like to help protect wildlife, here are some steps to take:

• Learn about threatened and endangered species in your area. Use your knowledge to teach others about these species.
• Install a birdhouse or feeder near your yard.
• Keep your pets, especially cats, indoors. Cats kill billions of birds each year.
• Avoid the use of fertilizers or pesticides on your lawn or garden as they are toxic to wildlife.
• Let local or state wildlife agencies know that you don’t support the use of cruel or inhumane traps to capture wild animals.
• Write a letter to your local or state officials requesting that they follow regulations that support wildlife.

By Debby Shade, Texas. Debby is a writer, former school teacher, and a nature enthusiast.

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