Poisonous Snakes in Panama

OK, there’s a lot of interest in snakes. Especially poisonous ones, and since people always ask on ships when lecture about Panama, I thought I should clarify a few things.

First we have 227 reptile species in Panama, 127 of these are snakes, but only 20 or so 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 lightning 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 agricultural workers far from hospitals.

However . . . occasionally people do get struck by lightning, 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 lightning. 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 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 initial 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.

Picture at left is result of untreated fer de lance bite.  Interestingly a mother fer de lance can give birth to up to 80 babies and the baby snakes are more dangerous than the mature snakes.  The mature snake knows that there may be multiple predators so it releases a controlled amount of venom, saving some in reserve.  The immature snake injects it all at the first strike.

A fer de lance found on the edge of our property.

But relax! You just watch where you are going.

Yes, we have snakes on our farm. We seldom see them – of course it’s the snakes you don’t see that you have to watch out for – but they are there and our farm worker reports when he sees them. The venomous snakes we dispatch: sorry all you earth-sensitive types. The “bad” snakes do some good stuff but I don’t want them in my back yard. And we’re careful since we have one big black snake whose favorite snake item is fed de lance snakes, the very poisonous ones. Snakes keep down rodents, frogs (some of which are poisonous for my dogs), and an excess of lizards.  So we watch where we step, which is a very good thing since I have three dogs!

The biggest snakes in the grass you have to watch for in Panama are dishonest real estate sellers and promoters and Panamanians playing juego de la vida or “the game of life.” The game is almost a national obsession from Presidents down to ordinary locals all trying to “get over” on each other, and at times on you.

Living the adventure in Paradise …

Before I left on my last cruise contract I was busy all day working on lectures. At 4 pm Nikki though it was time I take a break and enjoy paradise, so she made me a delicious cafe mocha out of our own, home grown coffee, with some “extra flavoring” thrown in.  [Little Kaluha, Anejo Rum, and Contreau – try it!]  The fog was rolling in, so I decided to lay down in the hammock and read a book.

As I was getting comfortable on the hammock, I threw open the blanket that’s always on the hammock.  It was my mother’s and one of the few things I have that was hers, and, it get chilly in Boquete when the fog rolls in.  So I throw open the blanket and out falls a two foot, pencil thin, squirming snake, right on my chest!  You’d be surprised how fast I can move, and so was the snake!  I start yelling for Nikki and Milton, the guy from next door whom we’ve known since he was nine and is cleaning our cars.

This guy is skinny, the snake, not Milton, but he has a big, almost lance-shaped head [“fer de lance“] is brownish, so Milton fearlessly smashes it’s head while Nikki fends off three very curious mutts.  This is the time for action!  We’ll identify the sucker later, and if he’s a “friendly” and not a “hostile” … well “Que lastima!”

Near as we can figure, and the consensus now of Indigenous opinion he is a “Chunk-headed” snake, actually more thick-headed to have gotten in my blanket.
Being so thin and bearing little weight, the Brown Blunt-headed Snake can move through branches and twigs without causing any movement. The triangular shape to the body and the large dorsal scales allow it to reach out a third of its body length from the branch supporting it. It has that wonderful forked tongue, which is an acute sense organ designed to detect parts per million of scent particles in the air. It also has those two huge eyes which cover a large percentage of the head. They face forward and can give a sense of depth perception, essential for the accuracy of a lightning quick strike that will follow. The unfortunate victim is snatched in its comatose state from the leaf, wrapped in a serpentine half-nelson, constricted and consumed whole before it even knew what hit it.

The eyes of the snake bear some further scrutiny if only to appreciate the cryptic coloration that along with the markings of the snake’s body serve to blend it perfectly into the background. It now becomes invisible to both its predators and prey. [Philip’s Blog Philip’s travel and nature experiences]
But needless to say it was a surprising first! Never-the-less another interesting creature.

4 thoughts on “Poisonous Snakes in Panama

  1. 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!

  2. Difference Between Poisonous and Venomous: Poison is a broad term for any substance that irritates or kills. It is also used in a restricted sense for any harmful substance that enters the body by absorption through the skin or through eating or breathing. Poison ivy, for instance, irritates the skin; poison dart frogs kill predators that swallow them. Such plants and animals are called poisonous. Venom is a poison that one animan-whether a spider, a snake, or a bee injects into another animal. Thus a snake or scorpion that injects a poison by biting or stinging is called venomous.

    Panama in comparison: Panama for its small size 29,208 square miles (75,517 square kilometers); a country smaller than the state of South Carolina or slightly bigger than Ireland or Austria, has more venomous snakes than the entire United States, in the United States only 10% of the snake species are venomous. Panama has 130 species of snakes, 25 species or approximately 19% are highly venomous. The United States has only 17 venomous snakes (12 species of rattle snakes, cotton mouth, 2 species of copperhead, 3 species of coral snakes) and three states do not even have one poisonous snake (Alaska, Maine and Hawaii). There are approximately 3,000 known species of snakes in the world, with the vast majority of species being non-venomous. Only 13.3% or 410 species inject venom and are considered venomous, some highly venomous and some are mildly venomous and only 250 are able to kill a human with one bite.
    Nearly three-quarters of the world’s venomous snakes (148 species) are native to Latin America. Central America has 34 species of highly venomous snakes; Panama has the most (25 species), followed by Guatemala (19 species), Costa Rica (17 species), Honduras (14 species), Nicaragua (14 species), Belize (9 species) and El Salvador the least (7 species). Tropical and subtropical regions have more venomous snakes than temperate regions. Snake bites are more common in tropical regions and in areas that are primary agricultural, due to the fact that large numbers of people coexist with numerous snakes. The West Indies in the Caribbean consists of hundreds of islands but venomous snakes are only found on a few of the islands; while endemic venomous snakes are only found on five islands. (Islands that have venomous snakes: St. Lucia, Martinique, Tobago, Trinidad, Margarita and Los Testigos).

    Panama also has 21 rear fanged mildly-venomous snakes.

    Panama has the largest incidence of snake bites registered in Central America; approximately 1,500 snake bites per year, with approximatley 18-20 deaths. A mortality rate of 1.25%. Over a 22 year period (1991-2012) 33,016 snake bites were reported with a yearly average of 1,500.7 bites per year.

    Snake bites by comparison: Panama 54-62 cases per 100,00, Brazil1 2-14 cases per 100,000, Costa Rica 16 cases per 100,000, Colombia 6 cases per 100,000.

    The provinces in Panama with the largest incidence of snake bite are: Veraguas 450, Coclé 258, Chiriquí 200, Panama west 175, Panama Metro 167;
    according to statistics from the Minister of Health (MINSA) Department of Epidemiology. In Veraguas province 95% of venomous snake bites are from the fer-de-lance. (Statistics 2010).

    Fer-de-lance’s inflict more than 90% of the snake bites in Panama that result in an amputation or death.

    Most snake bites in Panama occur during June – October during the height of the rainy season. Most of those bitten are agricultural workers; snake bite is a major occupational hazard for rural people.

    In Panama 50% of snake bites are located on the feet.

    Panama purchases between 10-13 thousand vials of polyvalent antivenin a year, from the Clodomiro Picado Institute in San Jose, Costa Rica. Each vial cost the Minister of Health approximately $20 per vial. A venomous snake bite victim may need as many as 6-10 vials for treatment.

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