Guatemala hosts around 134 species of snakes, the most important ones found in the Maya rainforest are the harmless boa constrictors and the venomous pit vipers, such as the rattlesnake and worse, the Fer-de-lance or barba amarilla (Bothrops atrox asper)
Listen to how the name of the snake is pronounced:
The Fer-de-lance can be between 1.2-2 m in size.
They generally are some shade of light brown or grey with a darker hourglass or a zigzag pattern down the spine.
The underside of their chin shows off white to yellow, the older the snake the more brilliant the yellow.
On the triangle head between its eyes and nostrils sit two deep pits.
The tips of young snake tails gleam yellow, which lures insect-eating animals within their reach.
Their diet consists of frogs, small mammals, lizards, other snakes, centipedes and birds.
Females lay unusually large broods; as many as 65-75 eggs!
The Fer-de-lance’s Deadly Bite
The snake prefers to hunt at night and during the day often takes refuge under leaves, logs or on rocky outcroppings. They can often be found amongst ancient Maya buildings. They generally remain on ground, but young snakes may venture into trees.
As the snake moves through the rainforest, the pits on the bridge of its nose sense heat from warm-blooded mammals. When it spots one it stops and lies entirely still so as not to be noticed.
Its aim is excellent; it barely moves when preparing to strike and can do so from any position.
The snake’s two sharp fangs inject a toxin that damages the blood, blood vessels and nerve tissue of its prey. Cramping, swelling, and internal bleeding begin immediately.
The venom travels quickly and death can come within minutes. Young are born with fangs and cause the most fatalities.
This is why it is so important when exploring the rainforest to take great care – every year many people receive fatal bites from the Fer-de-lance.
Learn about Dr Diane’s near death experience with a Fer-de lance!
The Fer-de-lance that almost took Dr Diane’s life! The snake silently coils before striking..
Who would win if a Fer-de-lance fought a rattlesnake?
Well, there have been cases where when kept in captivity with the rattlesnake, the Fer-de-lance has killed the snake and tried to eat it!
The Snake in the Maya World
We see many representations of snakes in Maya art, especially on their painted vases.
Two features of serpentine behaviour were of great interest to the ancient Maya.
First snakes swallow their prey whole, letting it decompose inside their bodies and secondly, snakes shed their skins, the skins split along their back, allowing the snake to slither out, leaving behind the old skin.
Consequently, snakes were seen as vehicles of rebirth and transformation, great supernatural serpents frequently shed another being from their mouths, such as a warrior, an ancestor or a god.
Above you can see a snake with an open mouth and a warrior coming out of it.
Again here, this time an ancestor or god coming out of its jaw.
Snakes can be the vehicle by which ancestors or gods can make themselves shown to humans.
Maya Creation Story
The Popul Vuh (Maya book of creation) mentions a toad named Tamazul hoping down the road, to deliver a message to the hero twins. He was stopped by Zaquicaz, a large snake. “Where are you going? asked the snake. In hearing his reply, the snake ate the toad, claiming he could cart the message faster. Since that day, toads have been the food of snakes!
Later in time we see the feathered serpent, Kukulkan, at Chichen Itza, Mexico. This is a rattlesnake with bright green parrot or quetzal feathers.