Nature Blows My Mind! Tiny Island Home to Thousands of Deadly Snakes

golden lancehead snake image
Video screen capture. ARKive

ARKive/Video screen capture

Ilha de Queimada Grande has a nickname -- Snake Island. Even though the reason for the nickname is obvious, the details are shiver-inducing.

This 110-acre island off the coast of São Paulo, Brazil, is home to one of the most venemous snakes in the world, a species of pit viper called the Golden Lancehead Viper. These snakes grow to over 18 inches long, and their bite is so potent, it will actually melt the flesh around the wound. Wikipedia lists the effects of the venom of lancehead snakes as "swelling, local pain, nausea and vomiting, blood blisters, bruising, blood in the vomit and urine, intestinal bleeding, kidney failure, hemorrhage in the brain and severe necrosis of muscular tissue."

And the venom of the Golden Lancehead is three to five times more potent than the lancehead species found on the mainland.

Because of their deadly presence -- as many as one snake per square meter! -- the Brazilian Navy has forbidden anyone from landing on the island, with the only exception being certain scientific groups and the Brazilian Navy which maintains a lighthouse on the island. For a long time, the island's only inhabitant was the lighthouse keeper. In fact, there is quite a gruesome tale told by local folks about the last lighthouse keeper. Atlas Obscura writes, "One night, a handful of snakes enter through a window and attack the man, his wife, and their three children. In a desperate gambit to escape, they flee towards their boat, but they are bitten by snakes on branches overhead."

Here's a great video of the snakes on the island, and we definitely recommend you check it out.

While there are between 2,000 and 4,000 Golden Lancehead snakes on the island -- one of the largest population densities of any snake species -- it is actually a critically endangered species. It is found nowhere else in the world, and being on a small island means the risk of inbreeding is high. So too is the risk of a massive die-off from wildfire. In fact, people once tried to wipe them out by setting fires, in hopes that they could then use the island for growing bananas. Obviously that didn't work out too well. And overzealous collectors have caused the population to decline by over-collection of specimens for science as well as for the illegal wild animal trade. The species feeds primarily on migratory birds that use the island as a rest-stop, so of course potential changes from sea level rise or any changes in the habits of migrating birds could also spell disaster for the species.

ARKive points out the importance of and strategies for conserving the species:

[I]n recent years studies have shown the venom of the golden lancehead to have practical applications for humans, with many potential medical uses, making it even more important to protect this snake... More effective enforcement on the island is recommended to prevent illegal removal of snakes. Plans are also underway to develop a captive breeding population, as an ‘insurance policy’ against the loss of the species in the wild, and this may also aid further studies into the species’ biology and its venom, without the need to capture wild individuals. Educational programmes among the local population may also help decrease illegal activities on Queimada Grande, so helping to secure a future for this unique snake.

In the meantime, we don't recommend visiting this unusual and deadly island paradise.