Bushmaster

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Profile

The bushmaster is a large, venomous snake living in South and Central America. Bushmasters are nocturnal, and are active from when the sun starts to set to when it begins to rise. These snakes are brown with black diamonds on their backs. Their bellies are usually white. In between this snakes eyes and nostrils, there are infrared pits that detect heat from predators and prey. These pits make this snake a viper. There are three different species of bushmasters (the bushmaster is a genus), all living in South and Central America. These three species are the black-headed bushmaster, the Central American bushmaster, and the South American bushmaster. These snakes are rarely seen, due to their tan and black coloring. They can also be colored reddish-brown or even pinkish. One distinctive mark on these snakes is the dark line extending from their eyes to the corner of their mouths. This line can be seen in the picture above.

Size

Adult bushmasters can grow from 6.5 to 11.5 feet (2-3.5 m) in length. This makes them the largest vipers in the world and the largest venomous snakes in South America. They can weigh 6.5 to 11 pounds (3-5 kg). Males are generally larger than females.

Diet

In the wild, bushmasters eat mainly small mammals. They may also consume birds and reptiles. One of their favorite foods is a species of rat known as the spiny rat. In captivity they eat domestic rats. Bushmasters capture their prey by lying in wait, camouflaged. They are smart, in that they hide in areas in which their prey is active. When prey is sensed using their heat-sensing pits, bushmasters strike and hold on, injecting a large amount of venom, this venom slowly kills the prey, and the viper then swallows it. One of the most interesting animals a bushmaster has been observed eating was a porcupine!

Habitat and Range

These snakes inhabit most Central American countries and also lives in the northern 1/3 to 1/2 of South America. The black-headed bushmaster inhabits the northernmost part of this range, and the South American bushmaster is the southernmost. The Central American bushmaster inhabits the middle part of the range. Bushmasters live in the rain forest and other areas that receive a lot of precipitation. They also prefer areas that are consistently above 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 C). Due to this preference, they live at altitudes below 3,300 ft (1,000 m).

Venom

Bushmasters are one of the deadliest snakes in the world. Even among bite victims treated with antivenin, the mortality rate is about 20 percent. Because bushmasters are sit and wait predators, humans sometimes walk right by a waiting bushmaster without knowing. But the bushmaster knows. The snake senses the heat of the human, and strikes, hoping for a meal. Sometimes, these snakes do not strike humans right away. Instead, right after being disturbed, it might follow the unsuspecting human for a ways before striking. Bushmasters produce 8 times as much venom as a copperhead. This venom attacks the circulatory system.

Status, threats, and conservation

The IUCN Redlist classifies the bushmaster as vulnerable. As with almost every wild animal in the world, habitat destruction is the main threat to the bushmaster’s existence. Bushmasters are feared locally because of their deadly venom, and some people (if they are brave enough) may kill bushmasters before they themselves get killed. Adults have no known predators besides humans, but the young may me preyed on by other snakes and raptors. Not much conservation can be done specifically for this snake due to how dangerous and secretive it is. Attempts to prevent excessive deforestation do help this snake as well as other rain forest species.

Reproduction and young

Bushmasters spend their lives in solitude except during mating season. During this time, males follow the scent trails females leave behind in an attempt to find a mate. Couples have an interesting mating ritual including rubbing heads, and the male licking the female’s body. Mating can last up to 5 hours. After mating, Females lay from 5 to 19 eggs in a burrow. These burrows are sometimes abandoned rodent burrows. While they are incubating the eggs, the females do not eat, and only leave the burrow to drink. They want to make sure the eggs are well protected. Incubation takes about 60 to 80 days. Newborn bushmasters are from 12-20 inches (30-50 cm) long. They are ready to mate at four years of age and can live up to 24 years (normally 12-18 years).

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Sources:

Photo credits

  • Bushmaster – public domain
  • Mystery animal – Bertille de Fombelle
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