In the late summer of 2015, I embarked on a month-long placement in Costa Rica’s majestic Tortuguero National Park. During my time there my duties were to include assessing the impact of jaguar predation on nesting green sea turtles; recording turtle nests and tracks, bird surveys along the great expanses of waterways snaking through the park and overall biodiversity surveys monitoring and recording the fauna present in the forests surrounding our very rustic base, which certainly had its charm and plenty of uninvited guests too.
I was bursting with excitement having arrived at the base, desperate to get out into the wilds and experience Costa Rica’s world-famous biodiversity for myself. There was one reptile with a fearsome reputation I was particularly hopeful of seeing, the infamous Fer-de-lance. Well known as one of Costa Rica’s most venomous snakes, I knew that should I be fortunate enough to get a glimpse of one, a strong sense of caution would be the bare minimum requirement.
Whilst not out to get people (why would they be? we’re far too big to be considered a prey source) a natural instinct to want to protect itself when threatened could potentially result in strike. If I encountered one, it would be my responsibility to make sure that was not the case.
Knowing this secretive animal is predominantly nocturnal, I did not hold much hope of a sighting, particularly as the first two weeks or so went by with not even a whisper of a sighting from any of the survey teams. This was not to say I was disappointed, far from it. I encountered plenty of Costa Rica’s magnificent reptiles including numerous encounters with the stunning Eyelash Palm Pit Viper, these beautiful little snakes are well known for their colour variations and get their name from their charismatic scales above their eyes. At times I didn’t even need to look for them, they came to me. Memorably, one caused quite the stir in the shower area and it wasn’t alone in inviting itself into camp, an early morning visit from a Central American Coral Snake was a lucky sighting for those who were there to see it.
Early one glorious morning I headed out on a biodiversity survey, passed the coconut trees which always hung somewhat ominously above us as we entered the forest and onto the survey trails, I was now fairly familiar with. Capuchin and Central American Spider monkeys bounced through the trees around me while bird calls came from all levels of the dense forest above, often a flash of colour would be all the sighting would permit before the avian acrobat would be engulfed once again in the vast vegetations protective cover. It’s amazing to think how quickly scenes such as this can be considered to some extent “fairly normal” and so there was no reason to think an encounter with one of Costa Rica’s most infamous animals was minutes away. I was lucky, that when I did meet this beautiful snake, I quite literally could not miss the encounter.
“Oh sugar stop!” (or something like that anyway) shouted my survey leader, on looking up I saw his arm firmly outstretched blocking anyone from breaking from our organised surveying formation.
His tone of voice and body language strongly suggested that whatever was ahead of us was likely to be something to be very cautious. I had my suspicions, we’d encountered venomous snakes on a regular basis in the past, but none had prompted this reaction, to my mind it had to be a Fer-de-Lance. As the survey leader's arm relaxed, allowing us to take a glimpse of the snake, it became clear that we had indeed been introduced to a particularly beautiful Fer-de-Lance and it was stunning. It’s perfectly adapted camouflage patterning eerily reflected the foliage of the forest floor, it was easy to see why an unsuspecting small mammal would stand little chance of detecting this perfect predator.
Despite the snake’s reputation of being aggressive towards people, there was no evidence of this. Indeed, as it basked in the early morning glow of the sun it seemed unaware of our presence, although the vibrations from our footsteps must surely have alerted it to some extent. As I alternated between looking with the naked eye and through my camera lens, I once again contemplated how fortunate I was to have had this experience.
Snakes are beautiful in their own right and are perfectly evolved for the roles they serve in the ecosystem; proven by the millions of years they have inhabited our planet. What a shame it is that in Costa Rica this snake, whilst not officially classed as threatened or endangered, faces the threat of serious changes to their habitat which is particularly prominent in rural areas.
Two short weeks later, I left Costa Rica with many new friends and a mountain of memories, few however were as exciting or as special as those few minutes I spent in the company of one of Central America’s most venomous and most beautiful snakes.