Terciopelo – My First Encounter With A Venomous Snake

We arrived at the Costa Rica field site late at night, groggy from traveling and completely overwhelmed by the pitch black of night. The sounds of the forest alive erupted at the back of our cabins. We secured our headlamps and shuffled quickly into our beds, kicking out unwanted insect-friends and wrapping ourselves tightly in our mosquito nets.

Early the next morning we woke up to the calls of howlers. (I wish I had the ability to describe how exhilarating that sound is for me!) Many of us were terrified by this new unfamiliar, booming sound, but I knew it meant it was time to greet this new day.

We started our day with a lecture from a site manager who went through the safety hazards, how the field site runs, meal schedules – the necessary rundown. After all of the logistics he began to warn us about the “terciopelo” or “fer-de-lance”. We were shown images and reminded of how well they blend into their environment. “The venom from one bite can kill SIX grown adult men!!” he stated with a frightening excitement. We all looked at each other with the same shocked face, “What did we get ourselves into? We’re going to be in the forest with one of THOSE?!”

I have no idea if his statement was true, regardless, I think he enjoyed putting a little fear in us. A little harmless fun right? Either way it was important for us to be impacted so we knew the severity of the potential danger we could face if we did not conduct ourselves properly and remain alert.

Our instructor brought us out on the trail after this meeting so that we could get our feet dirty, so to speak. I was following right behind her, eager to soak in all of the knowledge she could share and see the forest through her eyes.

She pointed out hummingbirds, insects of all shapes, sizes and colors, lianas, giant tree buttresses, and so many plant species that I forgot my name. As I tried to take a mental snapshot of all these wonders, she stopped suddenly in her tracks.

As casually as pointing out a cloud in the sky she says, “Oh, there’s a fer-de-lance on the trail.”
Sure enough, there it was. A tiny, young fer-de-lance, in the strike position. Not TEN minutes after we heard that it’s strike could kill SIX ADULT MEN! And only 2 feet from her feet! The most frightening part was that it blended in so well with the forest floor.

I would describe the thoughts that raced through my head in that moment, but most of it would have to be censored. I didn’t even realize how many swear words I had stored in my brain until that very moment.

Dense foliage surrounded us, making it difficult to take a quick detour off the trail. So we inched by in single file, careful not to make sudden movements or make it feel more threatened. I kept strict eye contact as I slipped by, wondering if my day was going to end up in the hospital.

It had a triangular head, wider than its neck. Cream colored bands and dark diamonds, so distinct on this species, stuck with me.

Needless to say, I was a bit dramatic. We all passed by safely. Realization quickly hit – I was a stranger in this forest, and I needed to be mindful of the inhabitants.

That was the only fer-de-lance I saw during our month-long stay, but I know there were many more who saw me and I did not see them. It’s unfortunate, because after this encounter I grew a new appreciation. They are intimidating, but beautiful, and a necessary part of that tropical ecosystem.


Fast Facts About the Bothrops asper (Terciopelo, Fer-De-Lance)

  • They can reach up to 8 feet (2.5m)
  • They are live-bearers, giving birth to up to 100 young at a time
  • Their venom is a hemotoxin, attacking the blood and causing clots
  • They have a heat-detecting pit between each eye and nostril

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