Snakes & Scorpions of South Yungas, Bolivia
Introduction: I moved from New York to Bolivia in February 2020. It’s been quite an adventure. Having come dangerously close to stepping on a rattlesnake while living in South Yungas, Bolivia, I decided to research just how dangerous a rattlesnake bite can be. I found the subject so interesting I’m considering writing about it. I was astounded at how many species of snakes there are so I will probably focus on the sub-family of pit vipers.
The rattlesnake found in southeastern Bolivia is commonly referred to as South American Rattlesnake, tropical rattlesnake or neotropical rattlesnake. Herpetologists call them C. d. terrificus.
“Bites from C. d. terrificus in particular can result in impaired vision or complete blindness, auditory disorders, paralysis of the peripheral muscles, especially of the neck, which becomes so limp as to appear broken, and eventually life-threatening respiratory paralysis. The ocular disturbances are sometimes followed by permanent blindness. Phospholipase A2 neurotoxins also cause damage to skeletal muscles and possibly the heart, causing general aches, pain, and tenderness throughout the body. Myoglobin released into the blood results in dark urine. Other serious complications may result from systemic disorders (incoagulable blood and general spontaneous bleeding), hypotension, and shock. Hemorrhagins may be present in the venom, but any corresponding effects are completely overshadowed by the startling and serious neurotoxic symptoms. Acute renal failure is considered as the main cause of death. The mortality rate of cases without specific serum treatment is 72%, and 11% in cases with specific treatment.”
Wow. At first, while researching poisonous snakes, I read that the percentage of deaths due to bites is extremely low, although of course, it depends on whether or not the bite is treated. The mortality rates for this particular venomous snake are incredibly nigh.
One evening I noticed my NYC cat Louie obsessively pawing a rock wall on the patio. There are scorpions, huge aggressive spiders with a stinging bite and massive cockroaches (larger than a chicken egg) in those rocks. To prevent an altercation I placed a bench and egg crates along the wall. A bit later Louie was on top of the wall, pawing beneath a pile of tools. I went over to see what he was chasing and saw a small snake with bands of yellow and red-orange. Now, I’m not an expert on snakes, but I recall learning that venemous snakes usually have bright colors. I pictured Louie squirming in agony after being bitten and almost shit myself. I trapped the snake in a box, brought it down the road and threw it in the woods. Months later, when I had access to the internet and did some research I discovered that this was a coral snake.
The Rattlesnake Incident
One morning, a couple weeks after disposing of the small coral snake, I decided to wash clothes in the outdoor sink that is our washer. My wife was in La Paz shopping for supplies we can’t find locally. After hanging a few pieces of clothing on a line to dry, I made my way back to the sink. As I was about to descend the steps to the lower level my eye caught movement directly in front of me. I’m extremely fortunate that I paused to see what it was. Exactly where I would have stepped in a couple seconds was a snake. It was about three to three and a half feet long and as I looked closely, I realized it was a rattlesnake. I’d never seen an actual rattlesnake before, only on television or in a documentary film, but the pattern is easily recognizable. I didn’t want to get any closer, but I’d left the water running on dirty clothes and needed to turn it off to avoid running out of water. I walked in the opposite direction and circled around to avoid a confrontation (that I would surely have lost) to get back to the sink. When I came within a few feet of the sink I saw the rattler. An odd thought came to my mind at that moment: it’s one thing to see a rattlesnake (or any venomous snake, for that matter), but it’s quite another for a rattlesnake to see you. Strangely, I didn’t feel fear and I wondered if I was losing my mind. While I wasn’t afraid, my senses were on high alert. Everything seemed a little different than usual. The light from the sun and the colors of the trees, bushes and flowers were a bit brighter and I thought I could hear every sound around me louder, separately and clearly.
When I reached for the faucet handle the snake was about four feet away. I quickly turned off the water and backed away a few more feet. The ground is uneven so I looked down as I moved so I wouldn’t lose my balance. When I looked up the rattler had moved about another foot away. I never heard a sound, not even a rustling of leaves. And I had been listening intently for any sound of the snake moving. It was still too close to the steps for me to get by so I stomped my feet to get it to move further away. As I did this I heard the distinct rattling sound – the warning of a potentially fatal encounter, and the rattler crawled under a pile of wood at an incredible speed. I suddenly felt a pain in the pit of my stomach. Not only was there no one else at the cabin, there are no neighbors close enough to hear me call for help and I had no phone. There’s a very good chance I would have died if not for being extremely cautious – apparently a 72% chance, according to Wikipedia.
Tiny But Deadly: The Scorpion
When I think of describing South Yungas, one of the first things that comes to mind is scorpions. The scorpions here are very small, but that doesn’t lessen the dread of finding one in your home. As a matter of fact, it makes it scarier (at least to me). A nine inch long scorpion, like the red scorpion of India could never sneak under a door, through the crack in a window or wall or squeeze under the 1/16 inch gap between floor and wall tile. All of these unofficial entrances have been used by scorpions in our cabin.
I was fascinated by scorpions growing up. I thought they were “kind of cool” and definitely interesting. When I lived in Arizona in the late 1980s, I expected to see some. I’d been told by someone from Queens, N.Y. who’d lived for a while in Tucson that they occasionally find their way into houses. I thought that was frightening, but was still fascinated by them and hoped to see one. Outside. On the desert sands. I never saw one in Arizona. I lived in Phoenix, so I guess that’s why.
There are people from La Paz with a bit of money who decide to live in the quiet beauty of this area. They have nice, quality homes built – homes with solid walls, quality electrical services, wifi, air conditioning, quality plumbing … everything needed to be comfortable. And no cracks, holes or spaces. So to them scorpions are just something to avoid while cleaning the yard or collecting wood for a fire.
One night I awoke thirsty and decided to get something to drink. I saw our cat Nadia walking and almost stepped on what, in the dark, appeared to be a small pile of poop. Nadia suffers from a serious neurological disorder. She wobbles when she walks, has extremely slow reflexes and is slow to focus and notice her surroundings. And, she isn’t able to use a litter box (we tried but she kept missing). So avoiding stepping on cat poop is not a surprise. However, something told me to turn on a light. I did and saw that the dark spot was not poop, it was a scorpion. I grabbed Nadia just a few inches away from it and walking toward it. If I hadn’t noticed the spot one of us would have stepped on it. That’s bad enough, but this sleepy little mountain village is not the place you want to be when you have an emergency. There is no hospital nearby, only a clinic. And the clinic has “bankers hours.” There is no EMS service and no ambulance service. So being stung by a scorpion, or worse, little Nadia being stung, would have been disastrous. (The police department has only one officer and amazingly closes at 6PM AND is closed weekends. The people here have their own ways of dealing with things – many of which I’m not aware of and some that I’m not comfortable with. They set fires every day to dispose of their garbage and the smoke wards off poisonous snakes, scorpions and other assorted large, biting insects. I also found out from the locals that keeping chickens feeding in your yard keeps venomous snakes away. I haven’t been able to verify that but I have no reason to doubt it.
That’s just one incident with a scorpion. We have found one on a pillow, two on top of a bed, four or five crawling on walls and several crawling the floors of our cabin. We’ve disposed of about thirty. One of the more interesting things I discovered about scorpions is that they “play dead” to lure victims. I almost fell for it one day. Here is a photo of one of these tiny but dangerous creatures that I almost put my hand on top of while going to the bathroom:
Here are photos of scorpions from the internet: