© Dan Eatherley 2015
My first bushmaster was a dead bushmaster. The reptilian cadaver I held in my hands was in a neat stiff spiral the size of an extra large pizza. The snake’s mouth was agape, the eyes a milky blue, a cataract-like effect resulting from the vinegary preserving liquid. I couldn’t see the famous inch-long fangs. Were they folded back? I ran my fingers warily over the wet, knobbly, bead-like scales. The reptile’s nickname “pineapple snake” was spot-on. Even the head scales were small and knobbly. This armor must have given the creature excellent protection in life. A good thing, too. Any animal lying coiled on the rainforest floor for days on end is liable to be trodden on, sometimes heavily.
Perhaps it was just as well these snakes were dead, given that bushmasters are notorious as the world’s largest vipers – reliable reports have specimens exceeding twelve feet in length. While other snakes’ venom is more toxic, the volume potentially delivered in a single bushmaster bite makes the reptile extremely dangerous, not least because the fangs, sometimes attaining two inches in length, inject the poison deep into the flesh of victims. In his 1648 natural history of Brazil, the physician Guilherme Piso reported that the bite of the bushmaster quickly causes pain, dizziness, colic, delirium, and fever. Soon after, the blood rapidly corrodes and boils up through the nostrils, ears, and even the hands and feet. Death comes within twenty-four hours.
The serpent goes by many names: Costa Ricans know it as the matabuey or ‘the ox-killer’; in Brazil it is the surucucú-de-fogo, “the one who strikes repeatedly at the fire”; while in Trinidad the bushmaster is called mapepire z’anana, “the pineapple snake”, a creole term referencing the roughness of its body that results from curious protuberances on each scale. The bushmaster’s original scientific name, Lachesis muta, is just as dramatic. Lachesis was one of the three Fates of classical mythology who determined the length of a person’s life, while “muta” means “silent,” hinting that the bushmaster is a rattlesnake that has lost its noisy appendage. That the snake vibrates the peculiar burr-like tail tip when annoyed just adds to this impression, although in truth other snakes perform similar defensive behaviour and scientists now believe bushmasters are only distantly related to rattlers. A further distinction from rattlesnakes and indeed all other New World vipers is that bushmasters lay eggs rather than giving birth to live young.
But why was I messing about with pickled bushmasters anyway? It was a long story. Here is the short version. Leaving Oxford University in 1995 with a newly-minted zoology degree under my arm I wasn’t sure where I would go next. One thing was certain, academia was out: I needed a break from libraries and textbooks (ironic, given that I now love whiling away hours in dusty archives). So, with half-formed thoughts of filming exotic creatures on tropical islands I eventually drifted west to Bristol, the global centre for wildlife television making, the “Green Hollywood” as it was sometimes known. The BBC’s Natural History Unit had been churning out programmes here for decades, including most of David Attenborough’s highly regarded documentaries. Dozens of smaller independent production companies specializing in wildlife had emerged in recent years, making shows for the BBC or overseas broadcasters such as the Discovery Channel or National Geographic. After stints as a researcher at the Beeb and other companies, I wound up at Zebra Films a small, now-defunct independent. We had recently made some successful films about snakes for Nat Geo TV and were developing a new programme idea about the bushmaster.
During the research I learned of a famous, but now forgotten, association between the bushmaster and an American zoologist called Raymond Ditmars. A man of many talents—writer, pioneering film producer and herpetologist—Ditmars achieved fame in the early twentieth century as the first curator of reptiles and mammals at New York’s Bronx Zoo. While still a kid he had started bringing snakes home as pets—including venomous ones. After much resistance his parents yielded to their son’s hobby, by the mid-1890s surrendering the entire top floor of their house to the expanding collection. One day, the young Raymond received a crate of snakes from Trinidad; among the tropical boas, rat snakes, coralsnakes, and fer-de-lances was an eight-foot-long bushmaster in good condition, which, the delivery note stated, the recipient should “be extremely careful with liberating.” On its release the viper supposedly chased the young snake devotee around the room, the rest of the family downstairs oblivious.
The incident kindled in Ditmars an obsession to catch a bushmaster specimen for himself from the wild: not a mission for the faint-hearted. Despite—or perhaps because of—the danger, Raymond Ditmars was fixated by the snake. In several of his books he reproduced the same ghastly photograph of a dead specimen with an evil cat-eye stare, its maw fixed open in a half grin, half sneer, the tusk-like fangs straining indecently at their fleshy sheaths, desiccated tongue forks tickling the chin. In later life, Ditmars’s vacations were spent hacking through the forests of Panama, Brazil and Trinidad in fruitless search of a wild, living specimen. These quests caught the public imagination, making national newspaper headlines during the 1930s.
This bushmaster film has yet to be made but I was hooked on the story and a few years later I resolved to follow in Ditmars’s footsteps, visiting his snake-hunting haunts in North America before later heading down to South America to try my own luck at finding a bushmaster. In June 2015, the fruits of my labours—Bushmaster: Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World’s Largest Viper—was published.
Among the first places I headed while researching the book was the Smithsonian Museum Support Center in Maryland, a fifteen-minute shuttle-ride from downtown Washington, DC. Built in 1983 as off-site space for cataloguing, conserving, and storing the vast collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the secure, climate-controlled facility housed some fifty-four million items, ranging from fossils and microscopic plants to totem poles and meteorites. A few snake specimens had been donated to the Smithsonian by none other than Raymond Ditmars.
My guide, Ken Tighe, was a database coordinator here with responsibility for reptiles. Bearded, friendly, and looking to be in his sixties, Ken had agreed to show me the handful of bushmaster specimens they kept here.
The preserved bushmasters kept at the Museum Support Center weren’t associated with Ditmars but I was keen to inspect them. After all, this might be the closest I was ever going to get to one.
“We affectionately call it the Death Star,” Ken had grinned as he had guided me through a zigzag series of warehouses, known as pods. I could see what he meant. Although the warren of sterile tunnels, cold metal pipework, and strip lighting also called to mind villains’ hideouts from early James Bond films. I half-expected a golf cart to career by, at the wheel a pair of machine gun–toting heavies in colorful boiler-suits. A new pod had been erected after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to accommodate thousands more formalin and ethanol-pickled specimens stored at Washington’s Museum of Natural History.
“All of a sudden, keeping gallons of flammable liquids on the Mall didn’t seem such a smart idea,” said Ken who guided me to a large storage room. Chains hung from the ceiling, and at the far end was a single stainless steel tank, perhaps four feet in length, lying on a trolley. It looked like an expensive chest-freezer wheeled out in preparation for a barbeque. But there weren’t burgers or beers in it, there were bushmasters.
Ken set about prizing off, one by one, the eight metal clips which secured the container’s lid. Was it altogether fanciful to believe I shared at that moment the apprehension of a teenage Ditmars opening that first crate of Trinidad snakes way back in the 1890s? As Ken plunged his bare hands straight into the stinking preserving fluid, did my heart actually start pounding just that little bit faster? Probably not. Like the fifty-four million other things here, I knew the contents would be very dead and unlikely to leap out and chase me about the room. Nevertheless, a frisson of exhilaration had surged through me as Ken fished out one of the bushmasters submerged in the tank.
Ken handed me several more deceased bushmaster with different camouflage markings. In some the coloration was muted with dull brown lozenges against a lighter shade. Others had greater contrast with darker almost black diamonds on a far paler background. The variation was significant as scientists now recognize four species of the viper which inhabits rainforest from Brazil to southern Nicaragua, and patterns are one way of telling them apart.
Perhaps surprisingly, given their notoriety, bushmasters are responsible for only 0.01 percent of reported snake bites in Latin America. However, accidents tend to occur far from civilization so bushmaster bites may be underrepresented in the figures. For bite victims, the outlook wasn’t great. The locals seemingly knew this. During the filming in Peru of Werner Herzog’s 1972 movie,Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a lumber man was struck twice in the leg by a bushmaster. Legend has it that, without missing a beat, he lopped off the limb.
Before we left Ken pointed at a fluid-filled glass, jar on a nearby shelf. It was labelled ‘King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah)’.
“Know what these are?”
Inside was a mass of peculiar white twisted tube-like structures, several inches in length. An outlandish new form of pasta? No, that was silly.
“Tapeworms?” I hazarded.
“Hemipenes,” came the answer. In other words, the paired reproductive organs of a male snake.
“They’re not called king cobras for nothing,” smirked Ken.