South America is beautiful and incredibly biodiverse; the Amazon jungle holds approximately three times more plants than have been discovered. It also holds one of the greatest populations of venomous snakes.
Venomous snakes in South America are coral snakes and pit vipers. The most dangerous among the vipers are the Fer-de-Lance and the Bushmaster, and the South American coral snake among the elapid snakes. All three are highly venomous and can cause death if medical help isn’t administered quickly.
In this article, I will discuss these beautiful and dangerous snakes in more detail. I’ll also name a few other snakes you should be aware of if you find yourself in South America, so read on!
1. Fer-De-Lance (Bothrops atrox)
Fer-de-Lance, meaning Spearhead in French, or Barba Amarilla, yellow beard in Spanish, is a solitary nocturnal pit viper. It is usually found in northern South America —Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, and northern parts of Argentina.
This snake likes moist areas, from tropical to cloud forests, but can also thrive in drier environments. Fer-de-Lance snakes that live in areas with a lower moisture content even develop more scales to prevent water loss.
Fer-de-Lance can grow from 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 m) and weigh up to 13 lb (5.8 kg), with females growing sizably larger than males.
They have a large triangular, flattened head and a grey, brown, or olive body with 14 to 28 pale markings in the shape of an X. Their undersides are pale yellow – that’s where the snake gets its name Barba Amarilla.
They feed on small birds, lizards, mice, and frogs and can live from 15 to 20 years in the wild.
Fer-de-Lance is very aggressive and injects 105 mg of hemotoxic venom in one bite, and causes death in 7 to 9% of cases in which the antivenom was not administered.
2. The Southern American Bushmaster (Lachesis muta)
The Southern American Bushmaster is the third largest venomous snake in the world, right behind the King Cobra and the black mamba.
You can find this snake in Venezuela, Colombia, eastern parts of Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, and the Guianas. It lives in tropical forests with a high level of precipitation.
The Bushmaster gets its scientific name after the fate of Lachesis, which determined the length of the thread of life. This origin is truly apt when naming this snake because the Bushmaster has a high mortality rate. It has an incredible striking speed and delivers enormous amounts of venom (more than 300 mg) in every bite.
Its venom attacks the circulatory and nervous systems, leading to death in 29.5% of all reported snake bites.
The South American Bushmaster can grow up to 10 feet (3 m) and weigh up to 11 lb (5 kg). The largest specimen ever recorded was 12 feet (3.65 m) long.
The bushmaster has a flat, broad head and a red or grey-brown body with dark spots in the shape of diamonds and a yellow-white underside.
It is similar to a rattlesnake in appearance, and it mimics it by rattling its tail to scare off predators. Still, since it doesn’t have a rattle, the vibration is silent, earning it the ‘muta’ part of the name.
It primarily feeds on rats and mice and can live up to 16 years.
3. The South American Coral Snake (Micrurus lemniscatus)
The South American Coral Snake is an endemic species found in Brazil, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. This beautiful snake lives in forests and savannas but can also be located near human habitats, living around water sources.
It’s a pretty small snake with 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to 0.9 m) in length and 2 to 5 lb (0.9 to 2.2 kg) in weight. It has beautiful coloration with black coloration in clusters of three, separated by white or yellow and red bands. The head is small and has a black band and a white crossband in front of the eyes.
Its diet includes lizards, South American knife fish, and fresh-water eels. The South American coral snake can live up to 7 years.
It has an extremely powerful venom that causes a neuromuscular blockage, a swift drop in blood pressure, and the failure of the heart and lungs if not treated in time.
4. The South American Rattlesnake (Crotalus durissus)
The South American rattlesnake, Tropical rattlesnake, or Cascavel, as it is known in Brazil, can be found in Uruguay, Paraguay, the north part of Argentina, and the south of Brazil. It likes grasslands and semi-desert, sandy zones.
It can grow up to 6.6 feet (2 m), but specimens as big as 8.2 feet (2.4 m) have been found. Although large, it isn’t a hefty snake and weighs around 2.6 lb (1.2 kg).
It is brown or dark green and has a diamond or a meandering pattern with light margins. Older snakes often have a raised ridge on their back. The South American rattlesnake has rough scales and a slightly smaller rattle than its North American cousins.
Unlike most venomous snakes, the South American rattlesnake’s poison is neurotoxic and hemorrhagic, with a 3.3% death rate. However, this snake is not aggressive and will always choose to retreat rather than bite.
It hunts small animals by lying in wait near the paths they frequent. It positions itself in an L shape to quickly pounce at and subdue the potential victim. The South American rattlesnake lives up to 15 years in the wild.
5. Amazonian Palm Viper (Bothrops bilineatus)
The Amazonian Palm viper or the Two-Striped Forest Pit viper can be found in the Guianas, Suriname, Brazil, and Venezuela. It lives in old-growth rainforests near streams and rivers but can also be found near cocoa plantations.
It has a triangular head and is uniformly pale green with an intense yellow underside, both of which are reminiscent of bananas. This coloration is why it has often been transported to other countries inside crates of bananas. It usually grows up to 2.3 inches (0.7 m) and has a slim body with a prehensile tail.
They eat birds, bats, lizards, and tree frogs. It ambushes its prey, bites, and holds it, all the while anchored to the branches with its tails. It spends almost all its life in the trees, making it arboreal and scansorial.
It has a strong neurotoxic venom and is responsible for up to 36% of bites in its inhabited areas. It’s particularly dangerous to humans since most bites get delivered on the head and the upper extremities because of its arboreal way of life.
6. Golden Lancehead (Bothrops insularis)
One of the most dangerous snakes in South America is the highly venomous Golden Lancehead (Bothrops insularis). Its bite carries a 7% chance of death because its venom is five times stronger than its land cousins.
One gram of its venom is worth more than a gram of gold, and the locals say it is so potent it can melt human skin. Thankfully, it lives only on one small island of Ilha da Queimada Grande in Brazil, and humans are prohibited from visiting.