Man Bites Snake, News at 11

Media reports about a remote island brimming with vipers raise the question: Why are we so quick to hate on snakes?

Otavio Marques (Instituto Butantan) via Wikimedia Commons
Golden lancehead pitviper (Bothrops insularis)
Credit: Photo: Otavio Marques (Instituto Butantan) via Wikimedia Commons

Ladies and gentlemen of the American public, I write to inform you that bias in the mainstream media is real. It is deeply ingrained, and it is divisive—at least when it comes to snakes. Yes, the media totally play into the snakes-are-evil lobby.

To find evidence of this conspiracy, you need look no further than Ilha da Queimada Grande, a tiny island with a big name that’s about 90 miles off the coast of Brazil.

Ilha da Queimada Grande is a quiet slab of rock in the South Atlantic. The island is devoid of people but heavily populated with other inhabitants: golden lancehead pit vipers. The latest estimates say there’s one of these snakes for every square yard of the 110-acre island.

The golden lanceheads have eked out a living here for approximately 11,000 years. They ask nothing of the human race, nor do they meddle in human affairs or seek us out. And yet, the lamestream media has branded them death incarnate.

“Brazil’s ‘Snake Island’ Is the Place of Nightmares, We’re Pretty Sure,” writes Huffington Post. “10 Nightmarish Facts About Snake Island,” lists Buzzfeed. “Beware Snake Island!” begins a crazy-long Daily Mail headline, ending with: “venom MELTS human flesh.”

Now, in an alternate universe where serpents aren’t considered second-class animals, a headline might read:

“Thanks to Habitat Destruction, Snake Is Listed as Critically Endangered

Because when translating ilha da queimada grande from Portuguese to English, you get something resembling “island of the big, land-clearing fire.” The name originates from the time when Brazilians tried to convert the reptilian paradise into a banana plantation, which meant first scrubbing the island with a cleansing flame.

Read: “Humans Go Bananas, Set Unique and Irreplaceable Snake Habitat Ablaze”

According to an article published in the South American Journal of Herpetology, somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 golden lanceheads remain. As young wrigglies, the brownish-yellow snakes subsist on centipedes, frogs, and lizards, but as adults, golden lanceheads have learned to climb into the trees and snack on two species of birds that frequent the island.

Read: “Snakes Pick Selves Up by Bootstraps, Make Do Despite Lack of Resources”

So why exactly do we fear these remote serpents and their modest way of life? Well, there’s the fact that the Brazilian navy forbids anyone from setting foot on the island, which seems like sound policy. But the travel ban is supposedly bolstered by the tale of an early-20th-century lighthouse keeper, his wife, and their young children. Legend has it that snakes crept through their home’s windows and killed the entire family as they slept. How dare those lanceheads! Except…the Brazilian navy, which maintains the lighthouse, has no official record of any such thing.

And then there’s the story about the fisherman who landed on Snake Island to pick some bananas and was instantly and savagely overcome by an unknown number of serpents. Days later, he was found adrift in his rowboat, dead in a pool of his own blood.

So, about that. Pit viper venom is generally hemotoxic, meaning it attacks the blood and tissues, and yes, the genus of snakes from which the golden lancehead hails (Bothrops) is responsible for 90 percent of snake-related fatalities in Brazil. But a pool of blood?

“Although I’m not familiar specifically with the effects of a bite from a golden lancehead,” says David Steen, a wildlife ecologist at Auburn University, “I would be surprised to hear it caused someone to die in a pool of their own blood.”

Why is a snake expert like Steen unfamiliar with the effects of this particular reptile’s bite? Perhaps it’s because there are no records of humans ever being bitten by the golden lancehead pit viper. Nil. Nada. Zero.

Read: “Golden Lanceheads Kill Same Number of People Each Year as Chupacabras”

Herpetologists at Brazil’s Butantan Institute have developed an anti-venom for the navy and scientists to take with them when they visit Snake Island. But they aren’t really sure how much to administer in the case of a snakebite, or how the serum might affect the victim. Again, this is a result of never having needed the anti-venom.

Additionally, the institute has found evidence that the pit viper’s venom might one day yield advances in medicine, such as drugs that treat heart disease, circulation, and blood clots.

Read: “Golden Lanceheads Vow to Save Human Race”

And yet, even if the snakes did save us from heart attacks and strokes, I get the feeling we still wouldn’t give them the gratitude they deserved.

“Let them die out or eradicate them, they are too dangerous and what if some stupid people imported them into the Everglades,” writes commenter “Enubus,” clearly an invasive species expert. “Not taking nukes off the table on this one,” comments the likely foreign diplomat Kenn Miller-Gass over at Buzzfeed. “BURN THE ISLAND FOR THE LOVE OF GOD BURN THE ISLAND!!!” says Daily Mail commenter “Libbitylobs” in a moment of quiet self-reflection.

Unfortunately for the snakes, the angry mob may one day get its wish—a Snake Island without any snakes. In an interview with Vice, Butantan Institute researcher Karina Rodrigues says that the island’s snake population is declining, thanks in part to the illegal wildlife trade. She says “bio-pirates” can reportedly sell the vipers to collectors for sums of up to $30,000 apiece.

Read: “Medically Important Serpent Goes Extinct, Thanks to Extremely Wealthy and, Let’s Be Honest, Probably Very Socially Awkward Pet Owners”

But does the lamestream media care about the golden lancehead’s plight? No, it just indulges in more of the same kill-it-with-fire routine. Auburn University’s Steen sees this as a shame. “The loss of biodiversity is a profound and irreversible tragedy, whether we are talking about a species of big cat we all know and love or a venomous snake on an isolated island that most of us will never see,” he says.

Clearly, it’s time we channel our inner Bernie Goldbergs and rise up against the invisible hand poisoning our perception of snakes. No longer shall we allow our serpents to be ssslighted and ssslandered!

Read: “Humans Leave Snakes Alone, Save Species by Doing Literally Nothing”

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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