Sss – Snakes in Panama


Dr. Julie’s Jar of Snakes

You know the snake in front of you is a deadly fer de lance.  What should you do?  

Dr. Julie Ray, founder of La MICA Biological Station in El Cope, Panama, says the best thing to do is to go your way and let the snake go his.  Trying to kill it is a great way to get bitten.

Dr. Julie gives workshops, one of which I was most grateful to attend.  A slender, soft-spoken – almost self-effacing – young woman, Dr. Julie transforms  into a dynamic, mesmerizing speaker when she is on her favorite topic.  She gave us a fascinating glimpse into how and why she became an expert in poisonous reptiles, as well as what it takes to run a biological station in an area where there was no cell reception the year she began.


Beautiful El Cope, Home of La MICA Biological Station

She whisked us through a “tour” of the snakes no one ever sees (unless they run over one), and the snakes that mimic their venomous cousins.  With deadpan academic dry wit, she offered her best advice on identifying the bad boys from the others: Don’t get close enough to be certain.  Then, we were treated to an extensive exposure as to what the differences are, where to find these snakes and what to do then.

And she’s right about looking for differences.  No self-respecting viper is going to roll over and show you its tummy so you can check the color and markings.  If you are at all near-sighted, you won’t be checking heat pits either, if you’re smart.  And some of the look-alikes are so good at their jobs you couldn’t tell them from the real Elvis.

Regarding coral snakes, she said that following the old rhyme about red and yellow is sure way to get killed in the tropics.  Coral snakes down here don’t follow the rule (although their northern cousins do).  If it looks like it might be a coral snake, assume it is one and leave.  Carefully.

Also, I was alarmed to learn that ALL snakes swim.  And that leaf litter is a great place to find one, especially leaf litter near a stream.  Where else?  Long grass.  Rock piles.  The holes in concrete blocks.  Ewwww.

What else?  Panama leads the class for reported venomous snake bites, at 2800 in a year.  The good news is that of those 2800 bites, only 14 people died.  It seems that a snake does not necessarily include its venom with every bite, and many bites are “dry strikes.”  However, that does not mean you should not get your butt to the hospital as fast as you can anyway, if you are bitten.

I apologize for not having accurate statistics (the dog ate my notes), but I believe Dr. Julie said that 90-something percent of venomous bites in Panama are attributed to the fer de lance.  The coral snake and the eyelash viper account for another several percent, and then, drum-roll here, the bushmaster chomps down the final one percent.

Julie's Fer de Lance Lounges in His Acquarium

Julie’s Fer de Lance Lounges in His Aquarium

From bite to “too late” is about 6 hours for a fer de lance.  You may lose the appendage that gets bitten, but if you get to the hospital timely, the rest of you will probably survive.  About the same time frame is true if it was an eyelash viper that bit you.  On the other hand, if a bushmaster was the culprit, the good doctor dryly suggests  that you should just head for the bar and try to enjoy your final hours.

When you see a snake – any snake at all – if you have your cell phone with you, take a picture – from a safe distance.  And while you are focusing, stay focused on where the snake is relative to your person! If there is someone with you, ask them to help with that.  Julie would love it if you could send her the photo.  It would help with her data-gathering.

Even better, if you run over a snake with your car, or see one that has been run over by earlier traffic, Julie asks that you consider popping it into a plastic bag (being careful to stay clear of the fangs) and freezing it until you can perhaps put it into a jar full of rubbing alcohol and send it to her.  Yes, really.  Some of the non-poisonous snakes people have sent her were in unexpected locations and led to a publication. People do this all the time for her, and she is more than happy to make them co-author on a publication (right now she has the most publications of any herpetologist ever in Panama).  You can find out where to send your snake by contacting her at

If you are intrigued by this and would like to learn more, Dr. Julie will be giving more workshops around the country.  The next one is in Torio, on the western side of the Azuero Peninsula.  She has also promised to offer one in Pedasi later on.

Those of you who would like more information about the Torio SnakeWorkshop can click  to view and download the pdf file here.