Attempts to Save the Habitat of the Atlantic Bushmaster

Back in the mid 1970s one of Everything Dinosaur’s team members took part in a project to raise awareness on the plight of some of the less loveable animals and plants that we share our planet with.  Conservation groups have little trouble getting support for the cute and cuddly Panda or indeed the magnificent Amur Leopard et al, but when it comes to less attractive, non-fluffy endangered animals and plants things can be a little more difficult.  Today we acknowledge and honour the work of Dr. Rodrigo Souza from Brazil.  Dr. Souza has dedicated much of his spare time to helping to save the rare and endangered creatures that inhabit the ever shrinking rainforests of eastern Brazil.

The doctor moved to the north-eastern state of Bahia twelve years ago and over time he has developed a deep understanding and fascination of the creatures that call the Atlantic coast rainforest home.  His passion is for one particular animal, a member of the Squamata, which regularly top the list of the most hated creatures when people are surveyed on such matters.  For the doctor, the Atlantic Bushmaster (Lachesis muta), a snake and one of the most venomous in South America is the creature that he devotes the majority of his time to.  This snake is a member of the Pit Viper family and as it grows to lengths of more than two and half metres, it is one of the largest vipers on Earth.  Two sub-species are recognised and the Atlantic Bushmaster with its often lethal bite has a number of  local myths and stories associated with it throughout its range.  It is also known as the “Mapepire”.  It resembles a warty rattlesnake and it prefers primary, undisturbed rainforest where it hunts its preferred prey of small mammals.  The sensory heat-seeking pits under the snake’s eyes help it to detect warm-blooded mammals at night, the time when this snake is most active.  As a result, of this viper’s ability to detect heat, it is also known as the “fire extinguisher” as locals say that it is attracted to naked flames.

Dr. Souza Handling one of the Atlantic Bushmasters

The doctor and the venomous Bushmaster.

The doctor and the venomous Bushmaster.

Picture Credit: Dr. Rodrigo Souza/Serra Grande Centre

Doctor Souza keeps nearly three dozen of these venomous snakes at his own private sanctuary.  He has been able to successfully breed these reptiles in captivity and to “milk” them of their venom so that an antidote for bite victims.  The good doctor’s work is vitally important.  Not only is he raising awareness regarding the threat to the Atlantic rainforest habitat but he has also managed to educate the local people into seeing the wildlife and the rainforest as a precise natural resource that needs protecting.  In addition, he has been able to product substantial quantities of snake venom antidote, no mean feat as each “milking” requires him to handle a potentially lethal animal and in captivity the snakes are notorious for stopping production of venom when under stress.

The BBC Radio 4 programme “From our Own Correspondent” has featured the work of Dr. Souza, it also raised the problem of the continuing industrialisation of this part of Brazil.

There are now plans by ENRC, a British-Kazakh mining company, to build a railway right through one of the few remaining areas of virgin Atlantic rainforest.  ENRC’s aim is to transport iron ore from a mine in the interior to the port of Iheus, despite the region being named by UNESCO as a priority region for conservation.  The railway would of course bring jobs.  But for Dr. Souza, who has been battling for years to preserve this unique ecosystem, it’s a slap in the face.  For him the railway would be an ecological disaster for the rainforest and his beloved Atlantic Bushmasters.

This venomous snake with its fearsome reputation deserves our help, it is definitely a member of the “beautiful ugly” as one of the locals who was working with our colleague back in the 1970s stated.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of the BBC in the compilation of this article.

Little known fact about the Atlantic Bushmaster, the species name muta means “dumb”, not a reference to this viper’s intellectual ability, it has an array of super senses.  In this instance, the “dumb” refers to the fact that although it rattles its tail when threatened it lacks the hollow “rattle scales” of a true rattle snake and therefore in the laboratory the threat is silent or mute.  When an Atlantic Bushmaster is threatened in its native habitat the swishing and rapidly vibrating tail disturbs leaves and other debris and the “rattling” sound can be heard.

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