Since the dawn of time, snakes have been in a constant battle with humans. Ever since the epoch of Adam of Eve, snakes have had a bad reputation. And admittedly so, snakes camouflage easily and slither their way into very discrete and unexpected places.
With the many outdoor parks, hiking trails, and outdoor activities that Panama has to offer, not surprisingly, it is estimated that there are 21 species of venomous snakes in Panama.
We will be diving into various venomous species, their natural habitats, where they can be found, and how to prevent encounters. We will also review what we can do in the event of a snake bite and cover the services available to us in Panama.
Venomous Species and Habitats
Some of the most venomous snakes in the world call Panama their home. If you are going to be out in areas with abundant lush vegetation or mountainous regions, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with these species. The good news is that the venomous snake species will be less abundant. Venomous species also tend to be more well-known are recognized by the locals than their more abundant and non-poisonous counterparts.
The Fer de Lance
The Fer de Lance, French for spearhead, is the most dangerous snake in all of the Panamanian jungles. The snake has gone on to receive the same reputation in all of Central and South America as well. The Fer de Lance causes more human deaths than any other reptile in the region.
On average, 105mg of venom is injected in one bite, however, only 50mg is needed for a fatal dose. Their main sources of food are small mammals or birds. The snake is slender and black, and when fully grown, reaching five to six feet in length.
Its natural habitat is forest areas or along stream edges and ditches. The Fer de Lance is also known to go near human habitations and plantations.
The Tropical Rattlesnake
The tropical rattle, Crotalus durisus, is by far the deadliest. It is from the venomous pit viper species. In Panama, none have been collected as of yet. Although the snakes exist high up in the dry tablelands of the Chiriqui and Veraguas Provinces, they are zealously protected by the natives of the Bocas del Torro region.
To the Indigenous tribes, these snakes are a religious commodity and symbol. The Tropical Rattlesnake is also an economic asset for the tribes. The snake’s venom is used to tip their weapons, their hunting arrows and spears. The people protect the snake’s territory, forbidden outside intruders from entering.
The Tropical Rattlesnake grows to a length of 5 feet, or 1.5 meters, rarely exceeding 6.2 feet, 1.9 meters. The snake contains two distinct stripes at the base of its head, and within the stripes, the color is lighter than the stripes.
The venom from these snakes varies vastly from the others we’ve discussed thus far. Due to the presence of neurotoxins found in the venom, bite venoms are extremely dangerous. If bitten, symptoms can result in impaired vision or total blindness, auditory disorders, paralysis of the peripheral muscles or of the neck area, which can eventually lead to life-threatening respiratory paralysis. Damage can also spread to include skeletal muscle issues and a possible heart attack.
The Bushmaster is the longest venomous snake known in the New World. There are three known species of Bushmaster. When fully grown, the snake reaches six feet (1.8 meters) and as long as 10 feet (3 meters). The large snakes are reddish-brown in color and vary to pink-gray in color, often matching their forest or river floor habitats. Although these snakes are seldom encountered, they pack a venomous attack, with potentially fatal effects.
It’s natural habitat are scrublands and forests stretching from Central America to the Amazon River basin.
Tree Vipers (Eyelash Viper)
The Tree Viper or Eyelash Viper receives its nickname for their elongated pointed scales above the eyes, appearing as eyelashes.
The Panamanian Eyelash Viper can reach anywhere between 22 to 32 inches in length, females being larger than males. The color pattern is mostly solid with the color varying from olive green to butter yellow, with specks of black and pinkish patterns on its back.
The main habitat for the Eyelash Viper is tropical jungles, mountain forests, and cloud forests. Like its other snake relatives, the Eyelash viper is a nocturnal creature, enjoying life high in the trees amongst vines and large leaves. Its diet is mostly small mammals, birds, and lizards. In small mammals, their venom destroys blood cells and blood vessels. Although the Eyelash Viper will only attach in self-defense, a bite of these snakes can be fatal for humans, so much caution and vigilance is advised.
These Hog-Nosed Vipers of Panama are very venomous. These snakes are unrelated to the snake species with the same name in the United States, which are not poisonous. The Hog-Nosed Vipers of Panama have two species: Trimeresurus lansbergi, found in the Pacific side of Panama, and Trimeresurus nasutus of the Atlantic side. Some of the identifying characteristics are that the Atlantic species has a more distinct tipped up nose than that of the Pacific. Both are dark brown in color, or black with red markings on their backs.
These snakes prefer drier habitats, and their food intake mostly entails rodents, lizards, and frogs. Although these snake bites are likely not fatal, their bites are very poisonous and should be treated cautiously.
The Sea Snakes
In the Pacific Ocean, ranging from Panama to the Indian Ocean, it is estimated that 50 species of sea snakes make their habitat. Unless these snakes are caught in nets or washed up on shore and handled by humans, these snakes will not interfere with man.
These snakes are related to corals and Cobras, with highly effective neurotoxic venom. Although these snakes have never bitten anyone in Panama, nor have any snake bites been reported, it is a good idea to stay vigilant while in the water.
The most common Sea snake in Panama is the Pelamydrus platurus. The snake is black with orange patterns on the side and belly, and its tail vertically flattened similar to that of an eel or an oar blade. The snake’s length does not exceed 24 inches.
How to Prevent Encounters
The best way to prevent a snake bite is to avoid an encounter with a snake. This may sound like common sense, however, with the excitement of adventure and exploring, many people tend to forget the basics.
Before heading out to any hiking excursions, or bird-watching in natural habitats, it is a good idea to ask your tour guide on preventative measures or available first-aid kits should a situation arise.
How to Stay Safe
- The number one thing to keep in mind is that you are stepping into their home and natural habitat, so tread carefully. Here are a couple of tips on how to stay safe during your hiking excursions:
- Bring a hiking companion with you. Your companion may notice a snake that you do not.
- Wear appropriate hiking shoes. Most hiking boots are equipped to handle rugged terrain and provide ample protection. Wearing low shoes or regular sneakers is not recommended. If possible, wear long trousers to cover your entire leg. Tuck your trousers into your boots.
- Stay vigilant whilst using your hands, climbing, or clearing brush.
- When coming across a snake, freeze your movements until you can properly assess the situation. More than likely, the snake will not attack as it is as surprising and disturbed as you are. Odds that the snake will be poisonous are 1 to 4.
- When out in the wild and marching through snake territory, attempt to cause commotion and noise, allowing the snakes ample chance to get out of your way.
- If possible, to equip yourself with a heavy arsenal against snakes, bring along a travel-sized first aid kit. The kit should include bandages and a splint (to help mobilize the affected muscles). If a first-aid kit is not possible, bring along bandages, a thin lace, and a piece of rubber tubing to use as a tourniquet.
- Be most vigilant during nighttime. This is when hungry snakes are out for the hunt, mainly on the prowl for rodents. Keep in mind that snakes are not hunting you, but there may be a misunderstanding if you cross their path.
How to Treat a Snake Bite
- In an emergency situation, treating a snake bite can be quite simple and straightforward. The very first thing to remember is to keep calm. The goal is to lower your heart rate so that any potential venom is circulated via your emphatic system at a slower pace.
- In an ideal situation, to identify the snake, the very first thing to do is have one of your hiking companions catch the snake. Ideally, you will have a burlap bag to place it in. If not, at the very minimum, the head of the snake, plus two inches of its neck should be secured for proper identification. This would also come in to play if it is advised to administer antivenom later.
- This step should be done while someone else is taking care of the snake. Have someone properly bandage up the bitten area nicely. If you do not have bandages, any form of compression around the bitten area will do. Contrary to popular belief, the goal is not to stop the circulation of blood, because as we’ve mentioned, poison travels via your emphatic system or muscle tissues.
- The extremities, or arms and legs, are usually the areas of the body where snake bites are most likely to occur. The goal of the compression is to stop the snake bite victim from moving or using the affected muscles.
- It is also recommended for the victim not to physically remove their clothing while bandaging the infected area. For example, do not remove your shirt if your arm has been bitten. Instead, have someone rip or cut the sleeves off. This avoids wasting time and the victim avoids lifting their arms over their head.
If the Snake Is Not Venomous
In the case of any snake bite, the steps above should be enforced. If the snake is not venomous, treat the wound as you would an abrasion or laceration, while on your way to receiving medical attention.
Emergency Procedures and Services Available
After applying the above steps, identifying the closest clinic or hospital to the vicinity.
Treatment Will Depend on the Type of Snake
If the snake bite was venomous, the person will be administered antivenom treatment. Depending on the latest vaccinations, the person may also require a tetanus shot.
Let’s Stay Safe
While Panama offers a wealth and abundance of outdoor activities, it is important to take precautions and be aware of the potential dangers of natural wildlife. From knowing how to dress on our hiking excursions, packing first-aid kits, and how to treat and react to a snake bite, we can do our due diligence to stay ahead of the game. The next time you are out high in the mountains of Panama, remember to safety first!
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