Some places in the world are far more terrifying than any horror movie location, and often nature can spring more fear-inducing surprises than any show’s producers might dream up. A lot of people have heard of the film Snakes on a Plane, but you might not be aware of the real-life version of this nightmare – although this time around the snakes are on an island, tucked away in an idyllic part of Brazil.
For many people, venomous snakes are one of the top ten ultimate fears, so they’d probably want to avoid paying a visit to Snake Island, otherwise known as Ilha da Queimada Grande. This small, breathtakingly beautiful island is located 90 miles off the Sao Paulo coast and it’s home to one of the world’s deadliest snakes, the golden lancehead pit viper.
This golden brown coloured light bellied snake has an elongated head and pointed nose – and if it bites you there’s a 7% chance you’ll die. The lancehead’s venom is so deadly it kills in less than an hour and can almost instantaneously melt human flesh. Even if you do manage to get treatment, lancehead bites still carry a 3% chance of death and can cause neurological damage, kidney failure, and severe haemorrhaging – err, nice.
If you did pay a visit to Snake Island, there’d be more than a slim chance you’d run into this lethal predator, as there’s estimated to be between 2,000 – 4,000 golden lanceheads there at any one time! As for this creature’s toxic venom, you can place the blame at evolution’s door, as Ilha da Queimada Grande became isolated from mainland Brazil, when sea levels rose around 11,000 years ago.
Due to their cut-off existence, the snakes had no threat from ground predators – but they also had no prey that they could hunt on the ground. Instead, they had to learn to slither up trees to catch migrating birds, but because they had to strike fast, they had to evolve a more deadly bite, so they could instantly incapacitate their prey. As if they couldn’t get any scarier, the golden lancehead has been known to practise cannibalism, though due to their penchant for perching birds, most of the time, they don’t have to resort to this option.
The golden lancehead’s bite is 5 times more lethal than a cobra’s, and as there is estimated to be 1 snake to every square inch on the island, it’s a good job no one lives there. Though there’s never been a recorded bite by a golden lancehead, due to the island’s isolation, related lancehead species have caused more human deaths than any other snake in North and South America.
The island is such a potential hazard that the Brazilian government only allows limited, officially approved visits, which are usually granted to biologists and researchers, as well as the navy who maintain the island’s lighthouse. Between 1910-1920 the island did have an official lighthouse keeper, but local rumour has it that he and his whole family perished when lanceheads entered their home through the windows.
Despite its scare factor being off the charts, the golden lancehead could actually end up helping people, and snake venom has already shown promise in treating heart disease. The medical community are now studying the unique properties of golden lancehead venom – and we sincerely hope the reptilian version of Hannibal Lector can prove to the world that though it has a deadly bite, it’s not all bad.