DOI10.47051/BJCI8462

Published April 20, 2020. Open access.

Gallery ❯

Amazonian Bushmaster (Lachesis muta)

Reptiles of Ecuador | Serpentes | Viperidae | Lachesis muta

English common names: Amazonian Bushmaster, South American Bushmaster.

Spanish common names: Verrugosa amazónica, verrugosa del Oriente, motolo, yamunga (Ecuador); cascabel muda, cuaima, mapaná rayo, pudridora verrugosa, verrugoso (Colombia); shushupe, matabuey, cuanira, kempirona, macapé (Perú); cuaima piña (Venezuela); cascabel púa, pucarara, matacaballo (Bolivia); surucucu, surucutinga, pico-de-jaca, surucucu-pico-de-jaca (Brazil).

Recognition: ♂♂ 340 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. ♀♀ 291 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail.. The Amazonian Bushmaster (Lachesis muta) is probably the longest venomous snake in the Americas, and the second in the world, after the King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah).1,2 The great majority of adults of L. muta measure less than 2.5 m, but some individuals measuring up to 4.5 m have been reported, but not confirmed.3 In the Ecuadorian Amazon, L. muta is identified from other vipers by having the following features: tail ending in a spine, prominent knoblike keels on the dorsal scales, which give the snake a “pineapple texture,” and a distinctive color pattern consisting of bold-black inverted triangles on a light brown ground dorsum (Fig. 1).2,4,5 Neonates (40–54.2 cm in total length)1,6 have a vibrant orangish dorsum and a yellowish tail.2 The most similar viper species that may be found living alongside L. muta in Ecuador is Bothrocophias microphthalmus, which is distinguished by having a dorsal pattern consisting of X-shaped markings on a brownish background.

Variation among individuals of Lachesis muta

Figure 1: Individuals of Lachesis muta from Llanganates National Park, Pastaza province, Ecuador.

Natural history: RareTotal average number of reported observations per locality less than ten. to extremely rareTotal average number of reported observations per locality less than three.. Lachesis muta is a nocturnal, solitary, and terrestrial viper that inhabits old-growth to moderately disturbed evergreen lowland and foothill forests, tropical dry forests and savannas (in Brazil),7 swamps,2 and plantations (of bamboo, banana, cacao, palm-oil, rubber, sugarcane, tea, or yucca).812 Occasionally, Amazonian Bushmasters venture into pastures,9 rural gardens, and houses.13,14 This species seems to prefer upland forest areas, but may as well occur in seasonally flooded forests during low-water season.2,15

Adult individuals of Lachesis muta spend most of their time (during the day as well as at night) coiled in ambush posture on the forest floor, either exposed or under herbaceous vegetation.13,16 They are also occasionally seen crawling on the forest floor,2 swimming across rivers,17 or crossing roads in the vicinity of forested areas.13,16 Juveniles dwell on leaf-litter, logs, buttress roots, and rocky areas.6 When not active, Amazonian Bushmasters hide under big rocks,18 under logs,16 in spiny palm scrub,19 or in any hole that fits the size and does not flood,18 particularly caves by armadillos, agoutis, and rabbits.13,18,20 Individuals may remain hidden in these lairs for days or even weeks.2

“Many people in parts of the southern Peruvian Amazon believe that the shushupe is a snake with the ability to transform into other animals, such as paca, agouti, or armadillo. The story is usually told in the setting of a hunter, on a walk at dawn or dusk, who has shot at one of these mammals. After the animal has been shot at but not killed, it usually retreats to a hole or den, close by. Not wanting to waste the animal, the hunters will dig up the burrow to find their meal but instead of finding it, they stumble across the shushupe. The hunters believe that the small mammal transformed into the dangerous snake for protection.”

“After hearing this story from many loggers and farmers, it became clear to me that the shushupe does not change form but in fact lives and coexists with these mammals. Keeping their dens clean from smaller, nuisance rodents.”

Harry Turner, English naturalist and explorer, 2020.

Individuals of Lachesis muta rely on their camouflage as a primary defense mechanism. Unlike popular belief, they are not aggressive, but calm and sluggish when confronted by humans.9,14 In the presence of a disturbance, most individuals show no immediate defensive reaction, remaining coiled and immobile even when the vegetation around the snake is being cleared.13 If disturbed further, most Amazonian Bushmasters will flee, while others might emit a low whistle-like sound, vigorously wiggle the tail against the leaf-litter, or readily strike without a warning.8

In Ecuador and Peru, some indigenous groups (Achuar, Kichwa, Sápara, Shiwiar, and Shuar) associate the call of two species of Amazonian treefrogs (Tepuihyla tuberculosa and T. shushupe), with the “calling” of the Amazonian Bushmaster.9,21 The sound can be described as “an unearthly ascending series of kaks.”2 The origin of this association is unsure, since individuals of Lachesis muta cannot produce loud sounds.

South American Bushmasters are ambush predators. They sit-and-wait for prey to pass by, usually along small mammal pathways. Depending on the relative size of the prey, the snakes can “bite and hold” their prey or “bite and release,” subsequently following the scent trail of the envenomated prey.22 The diet of Lachesis muta is primarily based on small and medium-sized mammals such as rodents (rice rats, spiny rats, and agoutis),16,23,24 porcupines, squirrels, and opossums,2,25 but it also occasionally includes squirrel monkeys, frogs, and birds.26,27

Predators of Lachesis muta include snakes (Clelia clelia),28 peccaries,29 and humans.2 Indigenous communities in the Amazon consider Lachesis a delicacy, and there are records of bushmasters being cooked in villages in Peru2 and Venezuela.30 Individuals are often parasitized by tongue worms (Pentastomida) and lung worms (Rhabditida), which impairs respiration and may cause infected individuals to die from pneumonia.1

Lachesis muta is a venomous species (LD50The median lethal dose (LD50) is a measure of venom strength. It is the minium dosage of venom that will lead to the deaths of 50% of the tested population. 2.8–9.75 mg/kg)3133 that is responsible for 4.5–7.5% of snakebites throughout its range.2,14,34,35 In some areas, 17–35% of snakebites are attributed to this species, but these numbers almost surely correspond to misidentifications or exaggerations.14,36 Human envenomations by L. muta, although infrequent,36 can be severe due to the high amount of venom inoculated (up to 552 mg of dry venom per bite).37

“The Couni Couchi or Bushmaster is the most dreaded of all the South America serpents; and, as his name implies, he roams absolutely master of the forest. They do not fly from man, but will even pursue and attack him. They are fat, clumsy-looking animals, and nearly as thick as a man’s arm. They strike with immense force. So long are the fangs and so deep the wounds, that there is no hope of being cured.”

Sir Edward Sullivan, 1852.38

The venom of Lachesis is noteworthy because in addition to being haemorrhagic, necrotizing, myotoxic, and proteolytic, is also neurotoxic.36,39 Human victims of L. muta snakebite may experience agonizing local pain, swelling, bleeding, blistering, incoagulable blood, and necrosis (death of tissues and cells).14,31,40 Most victims also experience a syndrome usually not seen in those bitten by other viper species. This so-called “Lachesis Syndrome” includes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, low blood pressure, impaired consciousness, faintness, respiratory distress, and shock.36

In poorly managed or untreated cases, envenomations by Lachesis muta can result in secondary infection, septicemia, shock, pulmonary edema, renal failure, amputations, permanent crippling deformity, disabilities, and (in 1.4% of cases)41 death in as little as 45 minutes.2,14,34,42 However, some bites to humans involve no envenomation at all (“dry bites”).43

What to do if you are bitten by a Amazonian Bushmaster?

  1. Remain calm.
  2. Remove rings and tight fitting clothes to avoid swelling.
  3. Reduce movement of bitten extremity to reduce absorption of venom.
  4. Avoid the application of tourniquets, electric shocks, traditional medicine, venom suction, and incision of the bite wound.
  5. Plan immediate evacuation to a medical facility that has antivenom and avoid any action that may delay transportation.
  6. At the medical facility, personnel can initiate treatment with the appropriate antivenom, monitor vital signs, and perform laboratory tests.

Fortunately, the antivenom that is available in Ecuador, although produced based on individuals from other countries, can neutralize the venom of Lachesis muta.35,44 This is because the venom’s toxic and enzymatic activities are similar across Lachesis populations.44 Although serum therapy (antivenom) is the only recommended approach against a bite by an Amazonian Bushmaster, the fruit juice and the aqueous extract of leaves of soursop (Annona muricata) used by traditional “healers” may exert a protective action against the myotoxicity (muscle-breaking activity) of the venom.45

Breeding in Lachesis muta appears to be triggered by cold fronts and storms rather than correspond to a specific time of the year.6,46 During these times, males actively follow the pheromone trail of females.4,6 They also vigorously fight other males over access to females.1 During combats, males entwine their bodies with each other and try to push the opponent against the substrate.1 Courtship can last up to five hours and consists in the male rubbing its head and body, while flicking the tongue, over the female's body.4 Bushmasters are unique among New World vipers in that they lay eggs rather than give birth to live young.2,47 Females are capable of delaying fertilization by storing sperm for months.48 They deposit 3–23 eggs15,49,50 measuring 7–10 cm long50 in hollow logs or in mammal burrows.2,20

Unlike other South American vipers, females of Lachesis muta exhibit maternal care. They protect their clutch during the entirety of the incubation period, which is 60–95 days (~2–3 months).48,50 Considering the gestation plus incubation period, females can spend up to seven months without feeding.48 Hatchlings measure 40–54.2 cm in total length.1,6 Males become sexually mature when they reach ~122–129 cm in total length; females at ~112–164 cm, or in about 1–2 years.48,50,51 Under human care, individuals can live up to ~16 years,2 and probably much longer.

Conservation: Least Concern Believed to be safe from extinction given current circumstances.. Lachesis muta is here proposed to be listed in this category because it is widely distributed,7 especially throughout the Amazon basin, a region that retains most of its original forest cover. Therefore, we consider that the species faces no major immediate extinction threats. We estimate that, in Ecuador, ~87.3% of the habitat of L. muta holds pristine forest. Unfortunately, the population of L. muta occurring on the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, which is genetically distinct,44 occurs over an area that has lost the majority (84–88.6%) of its forest cover,52 and is now largely restricted to forest fragments.53,54 Habitat destruction and consequent habitat fragmentation is the main threat to the long-term survival of the species.54 Other threats include traffic mortality,1,55,56 decline in small mammal populations, and direct killing.54

Distribution: Lachesis muta is native to an estimated ~5,489,350 km2 area throughout the Amazon basin and adjacent foothills of the Andes in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela.7 It also occurs in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil.7 In Ecuador, the species occurs at elevations between 106 and 1568 m (Fig. 2).

Distribution of Lachesis muta in Ecuador

Figure 2: Distribution of Lachesis muta in Ecuador. See Appendix 1 for a complete list of the presence localities included in the map.

Etymology: The generic name Lachesis is derived from the name of one of the “Three Fates” (also known as Moirae or incarnations of destiny) in Greek mythology.2 Lachesis was the Moira that decided the length of life allotted to each human being and god.2 This epithet was probably given to reflect the feeling of having one’s fate at the mercy of the snake upon encountering such an imposing creature.57 The specific epithet muta is derived from the Latin word mutus (meaning “dumb” or “silent”).58 It refers the lack of a rattle, which is present in snakes of the closely related snake genus Crotalus.2

See it in the wild: In Ecuador, Amazonian Bushmasters are recorded rarely, usually no more than once every few months at any given locality. However, in areas having unspoiled forest and low human population density, like in Yasuní Scientific Station and Bigal River Biological Reserve, individuals may be seen more frequently, albeit certainly not reliably. The snakes may be located by walking along trails or by cruising roads through primary forest.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS:

How long is a bushmaster snake?

Amazonian Bushmasters can grow up 3.4 m, which probably makes them the longest vipers in the world, and the second longest venomous snakes in the world, after the King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah).1,2

How venomous is the Amazonian Bushmaster?

With a lethal dose of LD50The median lethal dose (LD50) is a measure of venom strength. It is the minium dosage of venom that will lead to the deaths of 50% of the tested population. 2.8–9.75 mg/kg,3133 the venom of the Amazonian Bushmaster is considered “extremely toxic.” In poorly managed or untreated human envenomations, the venom may cause renal failure, amputations, permanent crippling deformity, disabilities, and (in 1.4% of cases)41 death in as little as 45 minutes.2,14,34,42

Where are bushmasters snakes found?

Bushmaster snakes occur in the tropical forests of Central American and northern South America.2

What does the Amazonian Bushmaster eat?

Amazonian Bushmasters feed primarily on small and medium-sized mammals such as rodents (rice-rats, spiny rats, and agoutis),16,23,24 porcupines, squirrels, and opossums,2,25 but they also occasionally include squirrel monkeys, frogs, and birds in their diet.26,27

Will a bushmaster snake chase you?

There are records of bushmaters actively, albeit slowly, pursuing people,1,5,38 but these instances probably correspond to snakes that mistake a warm foot or warm hand for food.2

Acknowledgments: The first author would like to thank Caroline Guevara-Molina for the comments and suggestions that enhanced the scientific quality of this work. Special thanks to Andreas Kay, Antonio Freire, Darwin Núñez, David Salazar, and Regdy Vera, for providing locality data for Lachesis muta. For providing natural history data, we are particularly grateful to Darwin Núñez, Ernesto Arbeláez, Harry Turner, and Konrad Mebert. The second author would like to thank Christopher Gillette for providing an image of an Amazonian Bushmaster preying upon a rice rat.

Special thanks to Grégoire Meier and Randers Regnskovs Naturfond for symbolically adopting the Amazonian Bushmaster and helping bring the Reptiles of Ecuador book project to life.

Authors: Juan C. Díaz-Ricaurte,aAffiliation: Universidade de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil. Alejandro Arteaga,bAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador. and Juan M GuayasamincAffiliation: Laboratorio de Biología Evolutiva, Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), Quito, Ecuador.,dAffiliation: Galapagos Science Center, Galápagos, Ecuador.,eAffiliation: Centro de Investigación de la Biodiversidad y Cambio Climático, Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica, Quito, Ecuador.

Photographers: Jose VieirabAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador.,fAffiliation: ExSitu, Quito, Ecuador.

How to cite? Díaz-Ricaurte JC, Arteaga A, Guayasamin JM (2020) Amazonian Bushmaster (Lachesis muta). In: Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Vieira J, Guayasamin JM (Eds) Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world. Available from: www.reptilesofecuador.com. DOI: 10.47051/BJCI8462

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Appendix 1: Locality data used to create the distribution map of Lachesis muta in Ecuador (Fig. 2). Go to the section on symbols and abbreviations for a list of acronyms used.

CountryProvinceLocalitySource
ColombiaCaquetáBocana CamicayaDíaz-Ricaurte et al. 2017
ColombiaCaquetáLa FlorestaDíaz-Ricaurte et al. 2017
ColombiaCaquetáLa PazDíaz-Ricaurte et al. 2017
ColombiaCaquetáPaujilesDíaz-Ricaurte et al. 2017
ColombiaCaquetáPoreDíaz-Ricaurte et al. 2017
ColombiaCaquetáSan IsidroDíaz-Ricaurte et al. 2017
ColombiaCaquetáSanta FeDíaz-Ricaurte et al. 2017
ColombiaPutumayoBloque 24Chávez 2016
ColombiaPutumayoLa HormigaDíaz-Ricaurte et al. 2017
EcuadorMorona SantiagoBelow AlshiMAE Morona Santiago
EcuadorMorona SantiagoBomboizaTerán & Lomonte 2016
EcuadorMorona SantiagoCentro ChuwintsNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorMorona SantiagoCentro Shuar KenkuimValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorMorona SantiagoCentro Shuar KiimValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorMorona SantiagoChuwintsValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorMorona SantiagoCueva de los TayosDHMECN 64
EcuadorMorona SantiagoCusuimeOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorMorona SantiagoEl QuimiBetancourt et al. 2018
EcuadorMorona SantiagoEl TiinkThis work
EcuadorMorona SantiagoFauna de la AmazoníaAndreas Kay, pers. comm.
EcuadorMorona SantiagoGualaquizaAntonio Freire, pers. comm.
EcuadorMorona SantiagoKankaimValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorMorona SantiagoLimónNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorMorona SantiagoMakumaCampbell & Lamar 2004
EcuadorMorona SantiagoMutintzValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorMorona SantiagoNunkandaiValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorMorona SantiagoQuebrada Río NapinazaDavid Salazar, pers. comm.
EcuadorMorona SantiagoReserva el QuimiiNaturalist
EcuadorMorona SantiagoSan Carlos de LimónValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorMorona SantiagoSan KarlosPeñafiel 2013
EcuadorMorona SantiagoTunantsValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorMorona SantiagoWisuiChaparro et al. 2011
EcuadorMorona SantiagoYukaipNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorNapoHuaorani LodgePhoto record by Peter Horrell
EcuadorNapoHuataracoValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorNapoJatun SachaVigle 2008
EcuadorNapoRío PusunoiNaturalist
EcuadorNapoSan Jose de DahuanoValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorNapoShiguancochaPhoto record by Fausto Gómez
EcuadorNapoWild SumacoCamper et al. (in press)
EcuadorOrellana130 km S TiguinoUSNM 321138
EcuadorOrellanaBloque 31Libro PetroAmazonas
EcuadorOrellanaBodega NPWThis work
EcuadorOrellanaCocaMHNG 2410.043
EcuadorOrellanaCotapinoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaLoretoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaNPF–Tivacuno, km 7 1/2Nogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaParcela 50 haNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaPompeya SurNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaRío BigalPhoto record by Thierry García
EcuadorOrellanaSan Jose de MoteiNaturalist
EcuadorOrellanaShiripuno LodgePhoto record by Fernando Vaca
EcuadorOrellanaTambocochaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaTiputini Biodiversity Station Nogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaVía Pompeya Sur-Iro, km 58Nogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaW Puerto VenturaiNaturalist
EcuadorOrellanaWaimo of ConocoZamudio & Greene 1997
EcuadorPastazaBalsauraOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaConamboOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaCopataza (Achuar)Peñafiel 2013
EcuadorPastazaIntersección Cueva de los TayosPeñafiel 2013
EcuadorPastazaJuyuintzaOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaKapawi LodgeThis work
EcuadorPastazaKurintzaOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaLatasas–UmupiMorillo-Tobar 2013
EcuadorPastazaPaparawuaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaPeter Archer's placePhoto record by Peter Archer
EcuadorPastazaPiatúaThis work
EcuadorPastazaPindoyacuOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaRío BufeoOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaRío ChambiraAMNH 49135
EcuadorPastazaRío PucayacuUSNM 165010
EcuadorPastazaRío VillanoAMNH 82006
EcuadorPastazaSumak KawsayPhoto record by Vincent Premel
EcuadorPastazaTzarentzaThis work
EcuadorSucumbíosBaboroéYánez-Muñoz & Chimbo 2007
EcuadorSucumbíosBatallón de Selva 56Photo record by Guido Bladimir
EcuadorSucumbíosEstación PUCE CuyabenoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosLa Selva LodgeNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosLago AgrioNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosLimoncochaUF 30615
EcuadorSucumbíosNapo Wildlife CenterThis work
EcuadorSucumbíosPañacochaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosPisoriéYánez-Muñoz & Chimbo 2007
EcuadorSucumbíosReserva CuyabenoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosSacha LodgeNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosSan Pablo de KantesiyaMECN 65
EcuadorSucumbíosSani LodgeThis work
EcuadorSucumbíosSanta CeciliaDuellman 1978
EcuadorSucumbíosShishichoPitman et al. 2002
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeBombuscaroDarwin Núñez, pers. comm.
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeLos EncuentrosDarwin Núñez, pers. comm.
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeParque Nacional Podocarpus 1iNaturalist
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeParque Nacional Podocarpus 2iNaturalist
EcuadorZamora ChinchipePindal–MachinazaMZUTI 5501
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeSendero Ciudad PerdidaDarwin Núñez, pers. comm.
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeTundaymeThis work
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeZamoraDarwin Núñez, pers. comm.
PeruAmazonasAlto CenepaiNaturalist
PeruAmazonasChosicaConsorcio AGUA SELVA 2014
PeruAmazonasCordillera del CóndorRAP 1994
PeruLoretoAlto CahuapanasVenegas et al. 2014
PeruLoretoN of CharupaCampbell & Lamar 2004
PeruLoretoPavayacuCampbell & Lamar 2004
PeruLoretoPongo ChinimFMNH 2012
PeruLoretoUcayaliiNaturalist
PeruLoretoYarina CochaCampbell & Lamar 2004