Many people have an aversion to snakes. It is a common fear that seems to be lodged in some primordial part of our minds. This fear, although it can often be overpowering, is not always totally justified. Yet, in the case of one unusual island off the coast of Brazil, there is every reason to be terrified of serpents, as it is covered by the largest concentration of poisonous snakes known to man.
Ilha de Queimada Grande is an isolated, 110 acre tropical island that lies in the South Atlantic roughly 20 miles off of the coast of Brazil. Other than its quaint beauty, the tiny, uninhabited island seems otherwise fairly innocuous and average from a distance, until one goes ashore and sees that the island is known by its other namesake “Snake Island” for a reason. For slithering through the thick vegetation, lurking in the underbrush, and even hanging from the trees, are thousands upon thousands of deadly snakes.
The snakes on the island are of the species Bothrops insularis, known by its common name, the golden lancehead viper. The golden lancehead viper is a species endemic to Ilha de Queimada Grande, meaning it is unique to this one island, and found nowhere else in the world. The snakes typically reach lengths of around 28 inches to 46 inches in length, and are best known for the gruesome effect of their potent, hemotoxic venom, which causes flesh around the bite to actually melt in order to partially digest prey before it is swallowed.
The truly startling thing about Snake Island is not simply that venomous snakes are found there, but rather just how many of them there are. Estimates for the density of these venomous snakes on the island vary from a conservative 1 to a horrifying and perhaps exaggerated 5 snakes per square meter. The most common figure given by researchers is around 3 snakes per square meter. It is said that when stepping foot on the island you are never more than 3 feet away from a venomous viper. Since understandably very few scientific expeditions have done a thorough exploration of the island, the exact number is unknown, but it is widely considered to be more snakes per square meter than anywhere else on Earth.
The presence of so many snakes on the island has led to many both alleged and actual incidents over the years. Developers once attempted to make a banana plantation on the island, and slash-and-burn land clearing actually commenced before the island’s deadly inhabitants forced them to abandon the plan. Indeed, it is this account which gives the island its name, as Ilha de Queimada Grande roughly translates to “The island of the big, land-clearing fire.”
Other spooky accounts of encounters with the snakes are less verified and almost have the feel of local legend or something out of a horror movie. It is said that one fisherman drifted onto the island and went ashore to pick some bananas, whereupon he was set upon by the island’s snakes. Although the man managed to make it back to his boat, it is alleged that he was found dead in his boat, lying in a pool of blood, his body a mass of melted flesh due to the dissolving effects of so many hemotoxic bites.
Yet another story tells of a lighthouse keeper who took up residence at the lighthouse on the island with his family. It is said that one night snakes began pouring into their home, squirming their way through the windows and cracks under doors. The terrified family attempted to flee, and upon making their way outside they were faced by still more of the lethal vipers, which remorselessly continued the attack, with some even hanging from the trees to strike at the hapless victims as they tried desperately to escape. They never made it. According to the account, the partially dissolved bodies of the family were found strewn haphazardly about the island by the Brazilian navy.
The large number of snakes on the island have a ready food supply in the thousands of migratory birds that flock there to rest en route to their destinations as well as each other, since golden lanceheads are known to be cannibalistic in nature. Even though there seems to be enough food for them, it is still a mystery as to why such an unusual number of the deadly snakes are packed so densely into such a small area. Various theories have been proposed, yet no one really knows for sure why there are so many of them in such high concentrations.
Currently the island is totally uninhabited and is off limits to visitors except the occasional special permission granted to scientists. This is not only to protect unsuspecting people visiting the island but to help preserve the population of snakes as well. It may seem surprising, but in recent years there has been concern over the future of this unique species of snake. Despite the vast number of snakes present on the island, they are still at risk from a wide range of factors such as inbreeding and the devastating effects of wildfires in such a small area. In addition, Rogerio Zacariotti, a researcher with the Cruzeiro Do Sul University in Brazil, has made several expeditions to the island and has stated that he is certain that poachers are stealing the unique species for sale on the black market.
As horrifying as the island may be for some, it seems unfortunate that despite their unpleasant and vicious reputation there is a danger that this unique species of snake might disappear before we ever truly understand them or the mystery of their tropical island lair.