Fans of herpetology might think they’d love to visit Snake Island, a remote spit of land off the shore of Brazil where serpents rule. That it’s the only place on Earth you can find a golden lancehead might also be a lure, until you find out that the species is so deadly that the island has been cut off from public access.
Ilha da Queimada Grande, as Snake Island is also known, can be found just over 90 miles from São Paulo. Access to the island is almost forbidden, as the Brazilian Navy controls who is allowed on the island for their own safety, as well as for the safety of the snakes.
A few vetted scientists and Navy officials have been granted access to the island, but it truly belongs to the serpents. Among them is the golden lancehead, Bothrops insularis, a venomous snake that grows to over half a meter (20 inches).
Their venom is incredibly fast-acting because these animals feed on birds who, being winged, aren’t the easiest to track when you have no limbs. What the golden lancehead lacks in locomotion it makes up for in venom potency, being deadly enough to kill birds and melt human flesh almost instantly.
Not a snake you want to get bitten by, clearly, but on Snake Island you might not have a choice. The volume of snakes here has been reported to be as many as five per square meter. With such an apparently thriving population of deadly reptiles, you might wonder why even the birds bother to visit, but they need the island as a resting spot on their migration route.
We mentioned earlier that the Navy limits human access to the island for the sake of the snakes, too. If you’re wondering what such efficient killers could possibly need protecting from, the answer is us.
The venom of golden lanceheads is undeniably remarkable, and as such it’s of great scientific interest and makes this species a desirable one for animal collectors. Poachers procure these animals so that they can sell the products through illicit markets, and with all of the known individuals confined to Snake Island, they’re not hard to track down if you’re willing to take on the risks of a trip there.
For anyone getting ideas, breaking into Snake Island and grabbing a golden lancehead probably won’t make you a venom tycoon.
In an interview with evolutionary biologist Dr Arie van der Meijden, we recently explored the false hype around the value of scorpion venom. While news outlets have reported that it’s the most valuable liquid in the world by weight – and it is – it's worth entirely hinges on your ability to find a buyer.
Multiple scientists have indicated that the venom market can be a kind of fool's gold, since labs that are open to scrutiny from regulation authorities won’t risk the validity of their research by purchasing their materials from unofficial sources. You can read the full story for free in issue 4 of CURIOUS, our e-magazine.
The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted a lighthouse on the island. The building is the remaining evidence of the few people who lived on Snake Island between 1909 and the 1920s: a lighthouse keeper and his family. According to Smithsonian Magazine, their story ended badly in the way that you might expect in a place called Snake Island, as they were all killed when the animals slithered in through the windows.
When it comes to animals capable of injecting you with neurotoxins potent enough to cripple your kidneys and melt your flesh, our advice is to steer well clear. Snake Island: a great setting for a book, not a place to go on holiday.