Panama Poisonous Snake Bites

OK, there’s a lot of interest in snakes. Especially poisonous ones. And since I’ve mentioned it, and since I mention it in my lectures on ships, I’d better clarify a few things.

lightning strike at sea

First we have 227 reptile species in Panama, 127 of these are snakes, but only 22 are poisonous. That being said several of the poisonous variety are some of the most deadly in the world including the bushmaster and fer de lance. Bushmasters tend to hang out in remote canyons and rocky ravines and usually avoid populated areas or areas with cattle. Fer de lance are another thing however. They like to hang out near water, can be very aggressive, and being pit vipers go for anything that’s warm and will actually lie in wait for warm-blooded animals.

Regardless, it is difficult to see snakes in Panama, even for herpetologists who are out looking for snakes. Snakes are most active at night when most people are sitting by the fire, or watching TV, or online. Most snake bites in Panama occur during September and October during the height of the rainy season. Most of those bitten are agricultural workers. And few people are actually bitten. The doctor who has practiced medicine in Boquete Valley remembers treating one snake bite case. You have an equal chance of getting struck by lightening in Panama, as getting bit by a poisonous snake.

Normally if you are bitten by one of these snakes you want to get the head of the snake (yeah, right!) and get to an emergency clinic at one of the major hospitals as soon as possible. From most places in Panama you are within 45 minutes of a major hospital that stocks the anti venom. Typically the doctors will take their time, first doing a blood work up to determine the type of snake bite and the time of anti venom to administer. Normally, in healthy adults, if treated, the bites are not fatal. Most fatalities are children, elderly, and Indians far from hospitals.

However . . . ocassionally people do get struck by lightening, and win the lottery, and get bitten by snake.

In my last cruise ship lecture I mentioned the rarity of snake bites in Panama, and noted that the chances of getting bitten by a snake are equal to getting struck by lightening. After the lecture, Mary, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin came up to me and shared her story of getting bit by a fer de lance in Panama . . . and living to tell the story. It is a fascinating story, and given the interest in snakes, I’ll pass it on.

Seems Mary was on another cruise line, not Holland America or Celebrity, and the ship stopped in the Canal. One of the shore excursions offered was a “walk through the rain forest.” So Mary boarded the bus, headed off to the rain forest with 30 other people and a guide. During a season thousands of cruise passengers will tramp along this trail. The group paused while the guide pointed out a monkey in the tree, and as they were standing there Mary felt this sharp pain in her foot. She looked down, saw nothing, but felt this shooting pain, and noticed two little punctures between the straps on her sandals. The guide thought she had “stepped on a twig”. Returning to the ship the pain had intensified throughout her leg and the area around the intial wound was turning black. She went to the ship’s doctor who gave her aspirin and told her she probably was bit by some insect and having a reaction. For three days Mary kept returning to the ship’s doctor as her leg turned blacker, then her arms and chest started to swell and turn black, and the doctor kept, in Mary’s words, “putting her off” as if she were some kind of hypochondriac. Late into day three Mary noticed blood in her urine and went back to the ship’s doctor who finally did a blood test (normally the first thing you’d do). After telephone and television consultations from the ship with doctors in Miami, the Centers for Disease Control and snake experts, the ship made an unscheduled port call, had an emergency medical jet standing by, and flew her to Miami, Amazingly, but not without a lot of pain, Mary survived and never did get the anti venom. She was an adult, large frame, healthy . . . and most of all, very lucky!

She assured me that she “had nothing against rain forests, and would probably take the same shore excursion again.” Hopefully, not on the same cruise line.

The thumbnail [click if you want the gore] at the left is of a severe case of tissue death in a leg of a boy who had been bitten two weeks earlier by a fer de lance in Ecuador and required amputation of the leg. [Source: Confronting the Neglected Problem of Snake Bite Envenoming: The Need for a Global Partnership José María Gutiérrez, R. David G. Theakston, David A. Warrell]

3 thoughts on “Panama Poisonous Snake Bites

  1. Loved your blog here please send me an email, because I would like to speak with you about Panama!


    Philip Cooper

    Phillip, Right now I am on the ship with limited Internet capability. Regards, Richard

  2. The preferred term for snakes with toxic bites is ‘venomous’. ‘Poisonous’ is appropriately applied to dart frogs which are dangerous when ingested.

  3. Panama has the highest percentage of snake bites in all of Central America; from 1990 to 2009 there were a total of 25,728 reported snake bite or an average in that 19 year period of 1,354 per year; 2008 being the highest year with 1,863 bites. Majority of snake bite by province: Veraguas 450, Coclé 258, Chiriquí 200, Panamá West 175 and Panamá Metro 167. Panamá purchases a polyvalent anti-venom (approximately 5,000 viles per year) from Costa Rica for use on all the pit vipers except the Bushmaster that requires a specific anti-venom. Coral snakes as well require their own specific anti-venom. Besides the 22 highly venomous snakes, Panama has another 14 species that are mildly venomous rear fanged snakes.
    I enjoy your blogs!

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