Sep 28, 2016

A Word About Snakes

It's forever being said by experts that one has a better chance of being struck by lightning  in Panama than by being bitten by a poisonous snake.  Perhaps this is true, but to date my "close encounters of the reptile kind"  have been more frequent than those of the lightning kind. Take this beautiful fellow featured above....

It was 10:15 am on a weekday and the sun was shining brightly.  My two cats were up and about---one in the outside entryway peering in the front screen door, and the other inside peering out the front screen door.  Both were poised and ready to pounce.  I smiled briefly at what I perceived to be a sisterly staring contest.  

I was expecting a friend any minute, so I opened the door to go out and unlock the yard gate. My doing so pushed the outside kitty away from the front entrance just as this large coral snake slithered underneath the door to the spot she had been occupying.  Although she headed after it, my screams frightened both cats and thankfully, they took off.  I seized my trusty camera---always nearby---and snapped this pic.  It was a good thing I did, because in the time it took to get a male neighbor's attention, the snake had disappeared. Two brave men with machetes responded to my calls. They peered into and around nearby plants. No sign of a snake.  I provided photographic proof of what I had seen, so the three of us persisted until the culprit was located behind a piece of patio furniture.  

I wish we could have left it alone to live another lifetime, but the neighborhood is full of cats and dogs and small children, and our houses aren't all that far apart.  The men killed it and buried in in the yard.  (Something about burying it is supposed to detract other snakes from coming old wives tale, I suppose.)   I felt a bit guilty, as it was a beautiful snake.  But I had learned my lesson from a previous experience.  

About a year earlier, I was sitting with a guest in the living room when I noticed what I thought was an earthworm crawling along the baseboard.  I grabbed the broom and dustpan to sweep it up, but when I got closer it reared it's head and curled into strike position.  Realizing it was a snake, I abandoned the hand-held dustpan and swept it into a shovel.  My friend urged me to kill it, but it was so small I couldn't do it.  I took it outside to examine it closely before releasing it in the back lot.  After my friend left I did an internet search to find snakes that had markings resembling my infantile visitor.  The only snake that came close---actually it was a true match---was the Bushmaster.  Right down to the two-toned color of it's head.  Sometimes I still worry it may be living somewhere in that back lot...

It's hard to find precise information regarding snakes in Panama, but most sources will cite between 125 and 145 species of snakes in this country.  Of that number, only 25 species are considered venomous.  They fall into three family groupings; pit vipers, corals, and sea snakes.  

Sea snakes are rarely dangerous to humans unless caught and handled.  Their venom is a potent neurotoxin, but they reserve it for small fish and other prey.

Coral snakes are generally timid and inoffensive unless provoked.  They are burrowing snakes and usually don't grow longer than 30 inches.  Other snakes resemble the coral snake but are completely innocuous to humans.   Here is a wikipedia photo I found of a kingsnake [serpiente rey] that shares the same colors as a coral snake.  Their coloring is similar but the bands alternate as red, black, yellow or white, black, red.   A mnemonic used to distinguish between the two is "Red touches black, friend of Jack.  Red touches yellow can kill a fellow"

Unfortunately authorities always warn that this rhyme only applies to snakes native to North America and that coral snakes in Central and South America can have a variety of patterns and colors, including the red-touching-black pattern of the harmless North American kingsnake.  

Pit vipers are the snake family most responsible for bites to humans in Panama. Around 2000 cases of snakebite are reported annually.  The province that reports the most is Veraguas, which averages around 500 a year.  Vipers are aggressive, even after having eaten and while molting.  Several expats have reported sighting pit vipers in their homes, garages, or terraces.  

Probably the most prevalent venomous viper reported in Boquete and surrounding areas is the fer-de-lance.  (Bothrops asper)  Locals call it "Equis" or "Terciopelo" or "Barba amarilla".  It is responsible for about 95% of all snakebites in Panama.  It's toxin is hemolytic and causes symptoms of hypotension, nausea, vomiting, severe pain, local necrosis and renal compromise. I have never seen one, but know people who have.  One friend, living in a developed, upscale, gated community discovered a fer-de-lance coiled up in the corner of her sewing basket !

The other three vipers in Panama considered most dangerous to humans because of the potency of their venom are: 

The eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegelii), locally known as "Bocaracá", the bushmaster 
(Lachesis stenophrys), locally known as "Verrugosa" or "Cascabel muda", and the hog-nosed viper (Porthidium nasutum) locally known as "Patoca".    

I will need to do additional research before commenting on their regional habitats, but all are found in humid, tropical forest areas, which include the provinces of Chiriqui, Veraguas, Cocle, and Panama Oeste.