Reader’s wildlife photos, bonus edition: Spot the deadly viper

December 12, 2014 • 8:45 am

I’m back, and found these nice photos waiting from reader Lou Jost, a biologist who works in Ecuador (and who discovered the world’s smallest orchid). Recently Lou came across something not as harmless. . .

I just came back from a trip to our Rio Zunac Reserve, and walked right past this pit viper on the side of the trail. Easy to see when you know it’s there, not so easy when you’re looking for birds high in the trees! The person behind me saw it after I passed it. This is Bothrocophias microphthlamus, one of the most deadly pit vipers (and one for which antivenom is not very effective), but most individuals are not particularly aggressive. [JAC: Wikipedia gives its common name as “the small-eyed, toad-headed pit viper.”]

Snakes are like bears though–lots of individual variability. Years ago when I was a guide in Costa Rica I once had a tourist guest actually sit on a deadly fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper), her butt pinning the snake down but leaving the head free. It didn’t strike. But in the same area, another individual of the same species came jumping out of the undergrowth to strike at me from a long distance away and chase me.

Can you spot the snake? ‘Cause if you can’t, you better not hike in the tropics:


Here it is!




The Venomous Animals Database says this about the species:

Venom Characteristics

Potent hemotoxin, but not well characterized. Venom of this species may be the most toxic of any in this genus. Preliminary studies have indicated that this snake’s venom is poorly neutralized by some commercially available antivenoms.

88 thoughts on “Reader’s wildlife photos, bonus edition: Spot the deadly viper

  1. I spotted him (her) quick. Running in Tucson for years made me adept at spotting rattlers, of which I ran over many and even averted strikes. Of course it helps to run fast.

  2. Also spotted him(/her) immediately. No doubt easier (and evolutionarily more beneficial) than the average nightjar to spot, but I might be primed by having lived for many years in the subtropics in Australia.

    The habit of constantly scanning the ground still comes in handy after all these years living in the middle of the city — Germans do love their dogs!

  3. Great photos of an uncommonly seen snake in its natural habitat.

    For a good review with a distribution map and 12 photos see J.A. Campbell and W.W. Lamar (2004) “The Venomous Reptiles of the Western Hemisphere,” Vol. 1: 332-333. Comstock Publ., Cornell Univ. Press.

    This is an excellent work on venomous reptiles and should be available at most large libraries.

    1. That’s the book I used to identify it. Beautiful book, but somewhat unsettling to realize just how many poisonous snake species are out there!

      By the way, we left this one alone and walked around it, but after a while we got nervous, knowing that we’d have to cross this same section of the path again on our return, and the snake would surely find a new spot and test our spotting abilities again. Since I failed the first test, I wasn’t eager for a retest, so we decided to turn around early. That way the snake couldn’t go to far, so the dangerous area would be limited. We picked our way through the rocky path with our eyes glued to the ground. I was able to spot it about two meters from where it had been initially. It was a relief to get past it!

  4. I think humans have a natural ability to spot snakes inherited from our ancestors. While hiking through forests of western Tanzania, on occasion I stopped suddenly before I even knew why. I would then look down at a puff adder or mamba (one even reared up and we faced each other). This happened many times.

    1. Yes, I am sure that’s right. That same thing has happened to me many times. But for it to work, I think you have to be looking at the ground….this is a selective disadvantage of birding.

      1. We archaeologists tend to walk eyes down all the time. I found out (the hard way) that when hiking in such locations, it is best to keep eyes downward. If you want to watch a bird or other wildlife, stop walking.

          1. So over a sufficient period of time, I would expect natural selection to favour archaeologists over ornithologists. 😉

          2. But omelets are more nutritious than bones and stone artifacts, so there should be a stable polymorphism between ornithologists and archaeologists, with ornithologists prevailing in areas with few poisonous snakes…

  5. Nice.

    While I was on a float trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River I had a close call with a snake. I was alone, several miles from camp. It was early evening and I was walking along a sandy path when I saw what I thought was a cow patty. I was about to step over it when I realized the aren’t any cows in the Frank Church wilderness, so I gave it a second look. It was a large Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis). I think I could have dunked a basketball with the one-legged jump I made. Snakes, being cold blooded, like to warm up on sand that retains heat in the cool of the evening.

    By the way, baby newly-hatched rattlesnakes are especially dangerous. Their venom is super potent, probably as a survival adaptation. I know someone who almost died from a bite from one.

    1. Getting one good meal in the first few weeks of life is absolutely critical for a baby snake, especially when there’s an imminent cold or dry season that needs getting through. Some snakes have different venom composition in juveniles vs adults (where there’s a dietary shift, e.g. from lizards to mammals), but whether it changes or not I suspect the effectiveness (potency+specificity) of juvenile venom is under stronger selection. Almost all selection on venom is about food, defence is far behind in importance.

    2. I consider myself extremely lucky as I once handled a baby rattlesnake without any protection but a rubbery, thin twig. I was probably 8 and as I’ve mentioned here before I was quite good at capturing wild critters (would always let them go). I picked it up with said twig, put it in a glass jar with a few blades of grass and hopped on the school bus, proud of my “show and tell” topic. Which turned out to be a huge, huge deal involving the principle, school psychiatrist, I *think* but not sure the police and CPS had a chat with my parents. I didn’t realize it was a rattlesnake as it was so tiny and I had only ever seen big dudes.
      I remember (again, probably 7 or 8) jumping on a piece of plywood laying on the ground…it was springy and so I was enjoying my wooden trampoline when I heard the unmistakable hissing/rattle. I lifted up the plywood and there were two huge, pissed off rattlesnakes.

    3. Does their venom actually change?

      I’ve always heard that it was because juvenile snakes tend to release their entire venom load when they strike, while adults tend to only release a small amount of it and thus getting bitten by a smaller snake often results in a greater envenomation.

  6. I saw it right away. But then I’ve hiked in the Neotropics a lot. The one time I stepped over a large pit viper like this without seeing it first was at night, when they become really hard to see. (It was the same species, Bothrops asper, that Lou Jost’s tourist sat down on.)

  7. I also spotted it right away. This ain’t no nightjar!

    I ride bikes frequently through the woods, and this one looks like a cross between the two snakes I see most often. It has the body shape of a cottonmouth, and the coloring and pattern are similar to a copperhead.

    1. It isn’t yer boots it’ll bite, it’s yer leg.

      I watch the ground more than most, since I generally don’t wear boots. Just feet, so I have to watch for sharp pointy things. Fortunately NZ has no really deadly species; centipedes can give a very nasty bite, but not usually found on the track, more often in dead wood or under things and not that common. Most common hazard is yellow wasps which I hate.

      1. As a kid I was always barefoot (I can’t do that now as I have plantar fasciitis from wobbly ankles so it hurts not have orthotics on). I was walking in a cow pasture & stepped right on a bee. Ouch. It was worse for the bee though.

        1. Thank CC for orthotics! I can walk miles in hiking boots, but make me stand on a hard floor or sidewalk in pretty shoes and I’m toast. I do like wearing dresses so it’s sometimes a challenge to find shoes that don’t make me look like a frontier woman;-)

          Actually I have found a few pretty and comfy pairs, but couldn’t wear them for hours on end in a museum, par example. Teaching did in my feet.

          1. I have plantar fasciitis in both feet as well. I took on a part time retail job for the holidays at the mall – there was nothing else for work even though I looked for months so I just had to. Anyway working on that hard cement floor for 6 hours (not very long but long enough) without a second to sit down is killing me. I came home from work the other night and was just trembling and crying – it felt like all the bones in my feet were being slowly crushed and broken. Of course my husband, trying to be helpful said it wouldn’t be so bad if I lost some weight. Thanks. That’s just what I needed to hear when I’m covering my mouth and trying not to scream from the pain.

          2. In my 20s I worked jobs where I stood on a hard floor all day. I wore shoes that had no arch support, not knowing any better. I find the best thing is my orthotics in boots so I have the ankle support since my ankles are what causes the problems. My knees, hips & back hurts after walking a lot.

            I can’t win either as sitting kills me for other reasons. I think I just need to be suspended in liquid like Luke Skywalker was when he got his new hand.

          3. Yeah me too! It happened after I turned 30 and I was very slim. i think parts just started ceasing up after 30. It’s also when I got migraines.

          4. I have big feet which are probably normal for today – 8.5 to 9 or 38 in European sizes. Everyone figured I was going to be tall – the largeness comes from long toes (I also have long fingers) but then I just stopped at almost 5’3″.

          5. well, i’m 5’9″ and have sz 11 feet lol. but thanks for the confirmation that my being overweight is not the only possible reason for having it. but i’m sure it doesn’t help. it’s one of the reasons i am hesitant to bring things up with docs because it will immediately be attributed to my weight even though my bp is great and i am not diabetic (i had gestational diabetes thought – so i do have to be careful).

          6. Often women get plantar fasciitis when they become pregnant so this may be where yours got its start.

          7. I’m 5’2″ and wear size 6 shoes. Used to be 5 1/2 before orthotics. Can sometimes wear kids’ shoes, which can be much cheaper. Guess we’re all just “tenderfoots” ( tenderfeet?)

          8. Well I much much prefer barefoot for two good reasons – one, I don’t get blisters, and two, I get a lot of cooling through my feet. I’m not kidding, on a hot day it really makes a difference.

            Oh, and three, it makes fording streams no inconvenience and actually a pleasure – instead of enduring soggy boots thereafter.

            Of course the minus is I have to watch what I tread on, and I hate the misguided busybodies who spread gravel on some tracks – sometimes I carry sandals just for those bits.

            But standing for hours (whether in shoes or not) would do in my ankles too. Standing is much more tiring than walking.

          9. Now those Kenyans must have really tough feet.

            But the toughest I’ve seen was on Mitiaro, a small island in the Cooks. It has a flattish fringing reef, with little pools and holes in it – all sorts of sharp things, no way would I walk barefoot, however cautiously, on that. And this couple of young Mitiaroan guys were fishing. One had a machete, the other was using his bare hands. And they were chasing down the little reef fish and catching them – barefoot!

          10. You’re right about the cooling of the feet. I can’t stand to wear anything but sandals in the summer as shoes are too hot & if my feet are hot, every other part of me is even more heated.

          11. Yes. I think there’s a bit of a psychological effect, too. If your feet feel cool you can imagine the rest of you is, too.

    1. Took me about the same, but there are no snakes in NZ, so they’re not part of my unconscious.

      Being far more recently Christianized than Ireland, there’s no St Pat equivalent in legend either. (Maori colonized circa 1300, English first landed 1769.)

  8. Beautiful, beautiful animal. Gods, just stunning. Almost, but not quite as pretty as the Gaboon viper. I spotted it immediately – I think my keeping and breeding of reptiles in my 30’s honed me to spot that shape right away. I didn’t keep anything dangerous, but you still keep an eye on their position and posture – which lets you pretty much know instantly what mood they are in.
    Off topic kinda – but I once had a nightmare that I had some gaboon vipers in a laundry basket and was hoping they couldn’t escape while I prepared their enclosure. When I turned around they were gone.

    1. In Brisbane QLD just up the road from me, a few years ago a woman woke up to find a dozen baby pythons writhing around her bed. They had hatched in the roof and come out through the air conditioning duct.
      She was of course completely freaked out but managed to call the snake guy who came round and got them. The next morning, same thing. The rest had hatched.
      I once told this story to a woman in a pet store and she said that she wished I hadn’t told her. 🙂

      1. Pythons? No problem then. Though I guess it’d give you a very nasty shock if you weren’t sure what they were.

    1. Thanks, very interesting!
      I have an anecdote relevant to the thesis that snake detection in the peripheral vision is hard-wired and independent of normal visual processing – and, I would add, independent of the external appearance of snakes.
      As some here may know, I started catching and studying snakes at an early age (mainly small elapids, mildly venomous) and later got involved in palaeontology. Lots of practice turning over rocks looking for live ones, and later looking at and cracking rocks looking for fossils; and also lots of cleaning, measuring and drawing bones of recent specimens, and sorting through bits of bone acid-processed out of limestone in search of snake remains. (Also sorting out various bits of other vertebrates, but always with lower priority and less salience)
      So here’s the relevant anecdote: on at least one occasion, after a brief glance at a weathered chunk of limestone, I received the sudden knowledge that there was part of a snake showing on the surface, without immediately knowing where or what part it was. As usual, it turned out to be a vertebra, but it took a while to find it.
      (I believe that during my postgrad years I recruited not only the hardwired snake-detector function for spotting bones, but the hardwired human-face-recogniser function for identifying vertebrae. Still works for faces though.)

      1. We could call it a sensus serpentitatis, or perhaps sensus colubrinitatis.
        (The crucial difference from the sensus divinitatis is that snakes are also detectible by other means.)

      2. uggh, Elapids are the only snakes that give me the creeps – they are usually wirey, lightning fast, can crawl up themselves, and not too infrequently they are highly aggressive and grumpy.

      3. There seems to be a hard-wired function for detecting movement, but there’s also a function for detecting anything linear (I don’t mean straight, I mean long and thin). Not just snakes, but centipedes, worms etc.

        1. Incidentally, the snake in the top picture didn’t set my detector off – it’s too fat and I was looking for something long & thin. I couldn’t see it till I’d looked at the second pic.

        1. 😀

          Most of us saw it right away, but of course we were told to look for it (and I assumed it would be along the path). I suspect if I were walking along the trail and looking at other things–and who doesn’t?–I could easily have walked right by it too.

          This summer I set a radio on one of our rattlesnakes; thankfully the Massasauga is a VERY non-aggressive snake.

          1. I’ve forgotten…are you in Michigan? We have Massassaugas in Ontario, too, but I’ve never seen one in all my years of hiking. Only garters and I think a King snake in my back yard. Did see two rattlers in the hills above Palo Alto. My ex was/is really snake phobic and practically jumped in my arms. His 2 brothers and dad hated snakes, too, but his mother didn’t mind them.

          2. Yep, in MI. Some years I see them rather frequently, some years not at all. They’re a threatened species here, and I’m always happy to find them. Unfortunately I know some neighbors who kill them on sight.

            Mild as they are, they can still give you a thrill when you’re not expecting them. 🙂

            I’ve never had snake phobia, but do have arachnophobia, though I do whatever I can to conquer that.

          3. Many years ago I went on a backpacking trip along the Bruce Trail on the edge of the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron. One day a Massassauga rattler wandered into our camp. We gave it a wide birth and eventually it slithered on its way. I rather enjoyed the adventure but was a bit more watchful as we hiked on. I hadn’t expected rattlers.

          4. We hike some part of
            the Bruce about once a week when we’re home and I have yet to encounter a rattler. Hope it stays that way…

            PS. We’ve completed about 2/3 of the ~1000 km ( twice) plus some at the very northern end near Tobermory. Also,some hikes on Manitoulin Island, which is on the continuation of the Niagara Escarpment. Took the ferry – did not walk on water.

          5. We started at Tobermory and hiked east. I don’t remember how far we got. (Or much at all except the rattler and a few “wow” impressions. This was in 1972, back in the Dark Ages, before the beginning.)

          6. I’ve never seen those rattle snakes either but I’ve been told they are rather shy. I’ve seen milk snakes – those will bite if annoyed. Mostly I see garter snakes, which are docile little things. There are many in my yard – when kicking one out of the shed, the snake managed to slither into an inconvenient spot and I was pulling it but it was pulling back. I let it go because I didn’t want to hurt it but they can be strong for little tubular things.

          7. Yes, ’72 was the Dark Ages. I was still in California and hadn’t even met the man who would take me to Canuckistan and the great Bruce Trail.

        2. Wish I hadn’t looked again right before bed…
          The woman at the front desk of our hotel in Augusta, while admiring our pooch, mentioned that she had recently lost her Golden Retriever, Kemosabe, to a water moccasin bite in her ( dry ) back yard!
          That a/c vent story ( yikes) reminds me of a friend of my parents who stayed in a hotel in Lagos, Nigeria, and had a huge snake crawl out of her toilet. Apparently someone on another floor was travelling with a snake which got loose and travelled through ths plumbing. This was a fancy hotel! Now I’m really gonna have nightmares…

  9. I occasionally do the walk up to the Byron Bay lighthouse from the beach.
    Last year during one such walk I was rounding a corner and there was an eastern brown right across the path. I stopped in time and was waiting for it to move. As I was waiting a couple of girls approached from the other side. I put up my hand and said ‘stop, snake’. The older one stopped but the younger who was jabbering away not only didn’t stop talking but didn’t stop walking. The older girl then yelled at her upon which she broke from her reverie and quickly backed up. After a minute or so the snake moved off and as I passed the girls, told them that they wanted to be careful with those snakes as they are the second deadliest snake in the world (according to Wikipedia).

      1. Where’s your machismo? 😉 I first heard of snake chaps from a Texas birding list-serv; one of the good old boys straps ’em on whenever he’s bushwhacking through the thorn scrub. He has a lot of snake tales to tell and tells them well.

        I’m with you, I can’t stand to be covered up or laden down when it’s really hot. Love the advice to always wear long-sleeved shirts and tuck your pants into your socks…Yeah, right. (But maybe you actually do that–in that case, applause! :D)

        1. When you said “snake chaps” I was trying to picture someone using live snakes as chaps. I think I’m tired.

        2. Depending on the kind of snakes around (e.g. fang length), pants loose and baggy can be much safer than tucked in.
          Not long ago I was trying to find Triodia-proof gaiters (two layers of canvas over pants wasn’t cutting it in the Pilbara) and saw the PVC things that people sell to guard against rattlers. Iron Man suits. I imagine that polystyrene or bubble-wrap would be much lighter and just as effective…

  10. “Can you spot the snake? ‘Cause if you can’t, you better not hike in the tropics:”

    Apparently Lou didn’t, and does. 😉

    1. Update: I’ve learned to spot him. I’ve re-encountered him every time I’ve gone past the spot now (N=3). I made a video of him on Dec 26. I also found that our reserve guards had taken photos of the juvenile of this species in 2011 in our Rio Anzu Reserve, and they are fairly bright yellow!

      The video (and links to more info) is at my foundation’s blog post:

      1. D’you mean he’s always there? And no-one’s trodden on him yet?

        Just watched your video. He’s *big*. I’m so relieved we don’t have snakes in New Zealand. I don’t dislike snakes (just that the poisonous ones make me nervous). If pythons or boas escaped in NZ it wouldn’t worry me at all.

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