EYELASH PALM PIT
Written by Cyril Brass
Colourful but deadly, the eyelash palm pit viper is one of the most dangerous of the venomous snakes in Central America. It is also one of the smallest snakes rarely exceeding 75 cm (29.5 inches).
The most prominent features of the eyelash palm pit viper are its colorations, triangular shaped head, and most of all spiny scales positioned above the eyes. These pit vipers get their name by this distinctive patch of upright pointed scales over each eye, resembling eyelashes.
Unlike most snakes whose scales are smooth, the eyelash palm pit vipers possess rough and sharp scales believed to protect themselves against tree branches and to aid in their camouflage against potential predators. Their arboreal habitats are situated in humid tropical regions with dense lush foliage consisting of shrubbery, vines, and trees not far from permanent water sources like swamps, streams or rivers.
The wide array of colors like red, yellow, brown, green, tan, rust and various color combinations thereof, among eyelash palm pit viper species helps them blend into their surroundings. It is amazing that such vibrantly coloured snakes can become invisible amongst the jungle vegetation. I would guess that in all my treks through tropical rainforests, I have passed by several of these snakes without spotting them in the thick vegetation.
But I did see two of these deadly creatures during a hike in the coastal rainforests of Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica. The first one was situated about a meter above the ground. Grey-green in color this pit viper was clinging to the bark of a towering tree and blending in with the colors of the bark. Then just several meters further along the trail, the second pit viper, a golden yellow color, was spotted curled up on a flat broad leaf right beside the walking trail. Cautiously I took a couple of steps closer to the small motionless snake which enabled me to see clearly the distinctive ridges above the eyes. Yes, that was an eyelash palm pit viper. Slowly I backed away.
When spotted, these snakes can be seen resting on branches or broad leaves sunning themselves until an opportune time to seek a meal. What appears to be a resting position, they are always in an ambush position ready to strike. Certain death lies only a few meters away.
Patiently they wait for potential prey such as small rodents, frogs, lizards and small birds to pass by them. These vipers possess heat sensitive organs or pits located on either side of the head between the eye and nostril which allows them to identify the direction of potential prey. This is of great value to a night hunter. As most snakes are nocturnal, the eyelash viper hunts from late evening through the early morning.
They attack prey quickly, inject its venom, wait for it to die and then swallow it. Pit vipers have large hypodermic needle-like fangs positioned in the upper jaw. Even though they carry only a few milligrams of venom, just one drop of this potent venom is extremely toxic to humans.
Possessing a prehensile tail, these tree dwelling predators are able to catch and eat its food while suspending in midair from a branch. Sometimes they wrap themselves around colourful heliconia blooms waiting for unsuspecting small birds like hummingbirds searching for juicy nectar. What an excellent ambush sight.
While hiking in the lush jungles, tour guides stress to visitors not to get too close to wild tropical flowers like heliconias for that very reason.
The Eyelash Palm Pit Viper ….. a colourful snake ….. a nocturnal hunter ….. a deadly predator.
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