The Dangerous Snakes of Belize
Among 56+ species of snakes found in Belize, our research could only find 8 that are considered dangerous to humans. While each of these snakes possess deadly venoms that can defiantly kill you, most aren't aggressive and would only bite if stepped on or threatened. The Fer de Lance is the exception, it is an aggressive serpent and will not hesitate to strike if disturbed.
Venomous serpents have developed one of the most effective and efficient weapon systems of the animal kingdom. Since snake prey generally has the advantage of speed, (though the black mamba has been clocked traveling at 17 mph!) snakes had to find a new way to take down their prey without running the risk of losing them or getting hurt in the process. Snake venom is an amazing and unique adaptation, a fast and effective mode of subduing prey with minimal risk to the snake.
Snake venom is divided into two broad categories, hemotoxic and neurotoxic.
Hemotoxic venom affects the blood and organs, causing a breakdown or inflammation in the body. Hemotoxic bites are the most painful as breathing hurts and tissues start to die.
Neurotoxic venom affect the nervous system, leading to everything from seizures to death. Neurotoxic bites are the most deadly.
Central American Coral Snake - Micrurus nigrocinctus
Mild tempered snake with a strong neurotoxic venom, the Central American coral snake is probably the most common coral snake that is found in Central America. Unlike vipers that strike with their fangs, coral snakes bite their prey and they have to almost use a chewing motion to inject appropriate amounts of venom.
Maya Coral Snake - Micrurus hippocrepis
This beautiful snake can be very difficult to see. It will move on or under the surface, but it most likes to move under thick leaf litter. It is usually nocturnal and feeds primarily on other snakes. Its neurotoxic venom is the most dangerous in Belize. Like all coral snakes, it isn't aggressive. Unless you step on or foolishly try to catch one, you have almost no chance of being bit by this very deadly snake.
Eyelash Viper - Bothriechis schlegelii
Not aggressive, it has a strong hemotoxic venom. This viper is a typical ambush predator, lying in patient wait for unsuspecting prey to wander by. This tree dwelling snake is a nocturnal hunter. It has two eyelash-like pointed scales above each eye, its coloration varying between golden-yellow, green, olive green, brown, grayish-brown, with blotches or cross bands in various colors.
Fer de Lance (Tommy Goff) - Bothrops asper
Also called "Yellowjaw" or "Tommy Goff" by Belizeans. These snakes are sensibly feared throughout Central America. They have a strong, fast acting hemotoxic venom, they are fairly common, are hard to see, and they will strike if perturbed.
This is an aggressive snake, so be weary. His bite (although responsible for the majority of snake bite deaths in the region) is rarely fatal. Although he is a very grumpy snake who doesn't tend to run away and will stand his ground and strike when disturbed, he is also quite smart and will normally give a dry bite or only partially envenomate the poor hapless soul that gets in the way.
If you are bitten by a Tommy Goff and he does envenomate, then you have got many hours to get treatment before things get really serious. This is not a two step snake that doesn't give you time to make a will. The bite is designed to start the digestion process and to make sure the prey doesn't get very far before collapsing.
Hognose Viper - Porthidium nasutum
Also called the Rhino Viper, the Hognose Viper is the only snake in Belize with a distinctly upturned snout that is at least twice as high as it is wide. Dorsally, it is a dark snake, often with a narrow cream colored mid-dorsal stripe. It rarely exceeds 18" in length. It employs a strong hemotoxic venom to incapacitate it's prey.
Jumping Viper - Atropoides nummifer
This serpent is also armed with a strong hemotoxic venom. The color of this viper's stocky body varies from brown to gray and it has dark brown or black dorsal blotches. It has no pattern on its head. It is a nocturnal snake that comes out in the early evening hours to feed on lizards, rodents, and frogs. They often hide under fallen logs and piles of leaves and can be difficult to see.
Mexican Moccasin - Agkistrodon bilineatus bilineatus
The Mexican Cantil or Mexican Moccasin is a heavy bodied, snake with a strong, fast acting hemotoxic venom. It is in the pit viper family.
Neotropical rattlesnake - Crotalus durissus terrificus
This is the only rattlesnake found in Belize. They can be found in swamps and marshy fields from southern Canada to Argentina. They feed on birds, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles.
In the Northern portion of the range, their venom contains powerful nuerotoxins with death resulting from respiratory failure. This changes gradually southward and the venom composition is overwhelmingly hemotoxic in southern Argentina, yet the snake is no less deadly. This has dire implications for medical treatment, not only in the treatment protocol, but also the dilemma that the anti-venom may not properly represent the composition of the particular region.
If you come across one of these venomous serpents, examine the nature of the encounter. If you're far enough away to leave then please to do so, the snake will not follow you. If you're practically stepping on the snake when you first see it . . . probably at that point you will find that you have already been bitten.
If bitten ID the snake as accurately as possible. Remember as much detail as possible about it.
This seems a little scary, but remember that no venomous snake will strike without provocation. Look for the warning signs and watch where you step and you should be fine. Also remember many bites are given dry, so just because you were bitten doesn't mean you were envenomated. If you encounter a scared or cornered snake, remember that the last thing it wants to do is bite. Walk away and leave it alone.
For Coral Snakes there is a little limerick that helps identify the dangerous verities. Red on black, OK Jack, red on yellow, deadly fellow. This indicates the visual difference between the venomous Western and Eastern Coral Snakes and the non venomous Milk Snake and King Snake. The South American Coral Snake is one notable exception to the red on yellow rule, it is red, black and white with red touching black. This is a Very Venomous snake that is not found in Belize.
First Aid for Snakebites
This information originally appeared in the November 1995 issue of FDA Consumer, and contains revisions made in November 2002.
Over the years, snakebite victims have been exposed to all kinds of slicing, freezing and squeezing as stopgap measures before receiving medical care. Some of these approaches, like cutting into a bite and attempting to suck out the venom, have largely fallen out of favor.
"In the past five or 10 years, there's been a backing off in first aid from really invasive things like making incisions," says Arizona physician David Hardy, M.D., who studies snakebite epidemiology. "This is because we now know these things can do harm and we don't know if they really change the outcome."
Many health-care professionals embrace just a few basic first-aid techniques. According to the American Red Cross, these steps should be taken:
- Wash the bite with soap and water.
- Immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart.
- Get competent medical aid ASAP. The main thing is to get to a hospital and don't delay.
Some medical professionals, along with the American Red Cross, cautiously recommend two other measures:
- If a victim is unable to reach medical care within 30 minutes, a bandage, wrapped two to four inches above the bite, may help slow venom. The bandage should not cut off blood flow from a vein or artery. A good rule of thumb is to make the band loose enough that a finger can slip under it.
- A suction device may be placed over the bite to help draw venom out of the wound without making cuts. Suction instruments often are included in commercial snakebite kits.
- DO NOT allow the person to become over-exerted. I f necessary, carry the person to safety.
- DO NOT apply a tourniquet.
- DO NOT apply cold compresses to a snake bite.
- DO NOT cut into a snake bite with a knife or razor.
- DO NOT try to suction the venom by mouth.
- DO NOT give the person stimulants or pain medications unless instructed to do so by a doctor.
- DO NOT give the person anything by mouth.
- DO NOT raise the site of the bite above the level of the person's heart.