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LACHESIS muta     THE SILENT FATE
PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEVE HARRISON

One of the most feared snakes in the warm forested parts of northern South America and nearby Central America is the Bushmaster [Lachesis muta] which loosely translated from its ancient greek origins means 'silent fate'. Dea Muta was the goddess of silence and Lachesis was the second of the three Fates of Greek mythology. The Bushmaster is a 'pit viper' one of a group of snakes recognised by a pair of two small 'facial' pits which are highly developed heat sensing organs set between the eyes and nasal openings They are so sensitive in a Bushmaster that they can distinguish changes of as little as 0.0036 of a degree Centigrade [0.002 of a degree Fahrenheit].

Small forest mammals are the normal diet of these snakes and the sensors detect anything warm blooded, together with the movement and direction. Bushmasters are the largest of all the vipers and can reach a length of 3.6m[12 ft]. They are not heavy snakes and the body is slightly flattened ending with a bony spur at the tail. When the snake vibrates this structure against vegetation it makes a threatening sound.

A Bushmaster produces a large amount of venom that is weak compared with some other vipers and fortunately the snake is elusive. But anyone who is bitten has less than a one in five chance of survival as the venom causes massive internal bleeding and necrosis of the wound. An anti venom made by using the actual venom helps anyone who is bitten but is by no means a certain cure.

Santa Cruz, Bolivia    More than half of this extraordinary country lies is to the east of the Andes mountains. It is a land of tropical forests, grasslands, huge rivers, swamps and scattered mountains built from some of the most ancient rocks on earth. The Bushmaster exists in the northern Departments of Pando and Beni where it is known by the local name of pucucara or cascabel pua. At the Santa Cruz Zoological Garden, thanks to the Director and staff, Bushmasters are 'milked' by a specialist from the the Bolivian Ministry of Health. The venom is used for experimental purposes.

Snake venom collection and processing in South America was at one time concentrated in the Brasilian city of São Paulo at the famed Butanta Institute / Instituto Butantan - there the snake is usually known as surucuc'u, shushupi, pico de jaca or serpiente verrugoso. This latest initiative from the Santa Cruz Zoo is just another step along the road to self sufficiency for the treatment of deadly bites.The Bushmasters are kept in compounds and taken one at a time by trained handlers who' introduce' them into special plastic tubes. The snake has to be treated gently and subjected to as little stress as possible to avoid affecting the future yield of venom.

The tube restricts the movement of the reptile and allows the head to protrude sufficiently for the handler to open the jaws without fear of the animal striking. A simple plastic cup is placed under the fangs which are hollow and the venom passes naturally without harming. the animal.

Lachesis muta is the most widespread of four subspecies of Bushmaster. Others are found in different parts of the American tropics. One L .muta rhombeata is on the Atlantic coast of Brasil where its habitat is severely endangered, L .muta stenophrys is found in parts of Colombia and the nearby Darien isthmus as far as southern Costa Rica. The fourth , L. muta melanacephalus is from a small area of Panama and southern Costa Rica with some reports from Colombia . While the feared Bushmaster is known to be a shy animal it is good to know that the anti venom is available to help any unfortunate victim.

Lachesis for alternative medicine A weak mixture of the venom is used in a variety of alterantive medicines usally known simply as 'Lachesis'

EDITOR: Tony Morrison

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