The Terciopelo (Fer-de-lance) is one of the most dangerous creatures one can encounter in Costa Rica
Other large vipers are more inclined to escape when they feel attacked, but the terciopelo is more likely to strike.
A Vancouver, Canada, man who suffered a potentially deadly snake bite in Costa Rica that left him weeping tears of blood is recovering in a Vancouver hospital thanks to the quick work of a medical team and an emergency flight to Seattle to pick up an antidote to the venom.
Michael Lovatt, a 61-year-old old Sunshine Coast resident, was bitten by a venomous snake earlier this week while walking along a beach at night in the city of Quepos.
Speaking from his hospital bed at Vancouver General this morning, Lovatt said he never even saw the snake.
“All of a sudden there’s this intense pain on my foot. By the time I [shone] my flashlight down on [my foot], I just see three red dots and it’s sore… It went downhill real quick right after,” he said.
Lovatt, who lives in Robert’s Creek, went to a medical clinic in Costa Rica, but a language barrier prevented him from getting any more than minimal help, so he got on a flight to Vancouver.
”His tears actually had turned to blood.’
— Dr. Roy Purssell, director B.C. Drug and Poison Information Centre
“We deduced what had occurred, figured out which snake it had to be,” he said.
By the time he landed in Vancouver, he was in piercing pain, his kidneys were shutting down, and his blood was extremely thin and acidic, flowing freely from his lips and gums.
A friend rushed him to Vancouver General Hospital where critical care physician Andrew Neitzel said he was amazed Lovatt survived the flight.
“I was surprised he managed to fly back to Vancouver from Costa Rica,” said Neitzel. “He required urgent dialysis, urgent critical care support.”
Minutes later Lovatt was on death’s door, hooked up to dialysis and blood transfusion machines, while the staff at the hospital attempted to diagnose his condition.
Dr. Roy Purssell, the director of the British Columbia Drug and Poison Information Centre, said the snake venom also causes major problems with blood clotting.
“The patient was having bleeding from various areas, and his tears actually had turned to blood,” he said
Lovatt told doctors he thought he was bitten by an ant, but the doctors soon figured out it was no simple ant bite.
Purssell said a medical team from his centre and Vancouver General Hospital managed to identify that the culprit in the attack as a type of pit viper called the fer-de-lance, or Bothrops asper, (Spanish name: Terciopelo) based on all of the symptoms Lovatt suffered, including damage to his kidneys.
‘Within two hours he miraculously improved. It’s hard to explain it. It was almost magical,
— Dr. Andrew Neitzel, VGH critical care physician
The fer-de-lance is considered one of the most dangerous snakes in Costa Rica.
As dozens of blood transfusions kept him alive, doctors finally found the closest anti-venom at a zoo in Seattle.
The team contacted Woodland Park Zoo and Mark Myers, a curator at the zoo, rounded up 20 vials of antivenin, which the zoo keeps on hand for emergencies, and arranged for a zookeeper to deliver the vials to an air ambulance which flew down from Vancouver to pick them up.
“Receiving the call for help was quite a harrowing experience.We knew that time was critical and we had to move fast if we wanted to help save this patient’s life,” Myers said in statement released by the zoo on Friday.
A helicopter pilot rushed the anti-venom back to Vancouver where doctors shot Lovatt full of anti-venom.
“The abnormalities and blood clotting were starting to resolve within minutes. They were dramatically better within a couple of hours, and almost back to normal within a few hours after that,” Purssell said.
Lovatt is now in stable condition in Vancouver General Hospital. Purssell said he may suffer some permanent kidney damage from his ordeal.
Neitzel credited the co-operation of several medical services for working together to save the man.
“Within two hours he miraculously improved. It’s hard to explain it. It was almost magical,” said Neitzel. “He would have died. There’s no question this would have taken his life.”
“A combination of all of the services coming together at Vancouver General Hospital, the emergency department, the hematology department, orthopedics and plastic surgery, the blood bank, BC Ambulance Service — without all of these groups working together to help this patient, we’re fairly certain the outcome would have been tragic.”
The Fer-de-Lance (Terciopelo) in Costa Rica:
Widely adapted and common, the terciopelo is no stranger to lowland moist and wet forests and premontane moist, wet, and rainforest. It is less common through dry forest zones, although it may persist along rivers through such forest. In human-controlled areas where rat populations have done well, this viper is not shy. Banana plantations are a particular haunt of the terciopelo because of their rats.
In Costa Rica this species is common along the lowlands of both coasts up to 1,300 m in elevation. Beyond this country, it can be found on the Pacific coast from some parts of Mexico down to Ecuador; on the Atlantic coast, down to Colombia.
Corcovado National Park, Golfito National Wildlife Refuge, La Selva, Chirripó National Park, Carara National Park, Tortuguero National Park.
This snake can grow to a large size as an adult, but has a distinct coloration pattern both as a juvenile and adult. Pale yellow or cream-colored bands crisscross the back and sides of the body, making spaces for a dark diamond pattern. The luster of these dark triangles is velvety, and the triangles connect slightly on the back which some describe as a butterfly or hourglass pattern. The head is large, triangularly shaped, and conspicuously wider than the neck. This pit viper has the deep, visible, heat-detecting pit between each eye and nostril. The eyes are large and have a vertical pupil. The scales along the head and back are keeled.
Biology and Natural History
This infamous viper’s large size, long fangs, and high venom production and toxicity are paired with an active and edgy disposition, making it one of the most dangerous creatures one can encounter in Costa Rica. It is the most dangerous snake in Central America and causes the most snakebite-related deaths among humans in Costa Rica. Venom from this species contains an anticoagulant and causes hemorrhaging.
This nocturnal serpent is more active on the ground as an adult, but as a juvenile may function during the day and on low vegetation. Younger terciopelos have a yellow-tipped tail to draw the attention of frogs or lizards before ambushing them. Prey size increases as the individual snake grows larger. It is common in this country, and commonly encountered. It passes the day coiled up and hidden in vegetation; at dusk it will hunt along roads or trails through dense grass and forest. It is not afraid of human dwelling areas. When it feels agitated, the fer-de-lance may vibrate its tail—the buzz is audible—before striking. It moves quickly when threatened. Other large vipers are more inclined to escape when they feel attacked, but the terciopelo is more likely to strike. It produces a lot of venom, so it is less reserved with this defense as other snakes.
Female terciopelos give birth to live young (as opposed to eggs) in litters of fewer than 10 to larger than 80 small snakes at a time.
Juveniles prey on arthropods, frogs, lizards, or other small vertebrates. Adults upgrade their diet to small mammals, such as rodents and opossums, and occasionally birds of an appropriate size depending on the snake.
The full length of this snake can be more than 2 m; females are able to reach slightly longer body lengths than males.
Sources: Cbc.ca, anywherecostarica.com