Snakes Where You Can Tread on Them

Late at night in a tent in the African bush, my mother felt a muscle twinge which turned out to be a snake unfurling at the bottom of her sleeping bag and sliding up her leg. We were always finding them inside things – boxes, beds, toilets, and the main culprits were mambas.

Costa Rica has over 135 species of snakes, some 7.5% of the world’s snake fauna. Inevitably some make their way into houses where they look odd and incongruous (I found one between the mattress and bed base in San Jose), but the majority are perfectly content to remain hidden on the leafy forest floor and the semi-cultivated areas on the fringes. The fecund Osa is snake nirvana, and although almost every species is well-represented, the two families I like to keep an eye out for are the pit-vipers, of which the fer-de-lance or terciopelo is the most troublesome and venomous, and the Elapidae or coral snakes.

Aside from having no legs and injecting deadly venom, the fer-de-lance and coral snake couldn’t be more different. The first is perfectly camouflaged in the green, brown, grey leaf litter, has a mouth like a Pez dispenser, and (cue complaints from herpetologists) lies in ambush, proactively attacking innocent passers-by even if it means pursuing them through rivers. I have anecdotal evidence from a man with a disgusting-looking shin. The coral snake is gaudy and more laid-back with a mean little mouth, and it bites fewer people. Having said that, it is known as the 20-minute snake because if it does inject its neurotoxic venom that’s all the time you’ve got left before you die from paralysis and suffocation. Apparently.

So I was depressed at my own stupidity the other day when I almost trod on one while striding vacantly along a path wearing flip flops. And I have to say for a supposedly laid-back snake, he was pretty zippy, snapping back and forth, which is why the video footage is jerky, truncated, and cut to remove the various expletives.

Naturally, I considered what might have happened if I hadn’t retracted my foot before it made full contact with the snake’s tail end. It was getting dark which would have made a boat trip problematic; the nearest clinic was 90-minutes away, it wouldn’t be open, and there was no guarantee a doctor would be in town, or that anyone would have the anti-venom, and anyway the captains were listening to the football. On the positive side, half the coral snake’s strikes are dry. Still, I resolved to wear boots and pay more attention to where I was stepping in future.

The distinctive red, yellow and black bands of the venomous coral snake are a flashy warning to predators to stay well clear. So effective is that message, that a host of non-poisonous snakes – the false corals – have jumped on the bandwagon and adopted the same sort of look, a ruse that completely interferes with normal, intelligent human behaviour. Instead of stepping away from snakes with stripes, everyone hangs around, involved in heated debates and reciting mnemonics in order to work out whether it’s one of the four species in Costa Rica with a fatal bite or not.

Among the most popular are:

“Red touches yellow, kills a fellow. Red touches black, venom lack”, or “Red with black, you’re okay Jack”

“Red on black, friend of Jack, black on yellow, kill a fellow”

“Red into black, venom lack; red into yellow, kill a fellow”.

If you get a whiteboard and a set of coloured pens you’ll see that they basically say the same thing.  As does my own personal favourite for of I.D-ing true corals, R.A.N.A: Rojo, Amarillo, Negro, Amarillo, which translates as F.R.O.G: Red, Yellow, Black, Yellow, which of course makes no sense at all unless you are a Spanish speaker, and just confuses the issue in a stressful situation.

Anyway, it’s all irrelevant in Costa Rica where the various different species and subspecies, true and false, don’t necessarily conform to the rules of the rhymes. Some do; some don’t. The Central American coral snake, the most common here, has a number of sub-species that don’t even sport three colours – they’re bicolour. Just give banded snakes a swerve (“Say bye-bye, you won’t die”, “Stay away, live next day”, “Don’t be green, they’re all mean” – these need a little work). Obviously, I mean green as in naive, rather than advocating lifting the green policies that protect all rainforest snakes (along with scorpions, ticks, crocodiles and thorny palms).

Although in a sad postscript I have to reveal that this particular snake got himself in a bit of a pickle some days later, accidentally slithering through open doors across the floor towards a cook’s foot, and, in the panic that ensued, he lost his life. Shame.

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