August 2009

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How many types of poisonous snakes are there in Trinidad and Tobago?

There are more than sixty species of snakes in Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad has four venomous species. There are no venomous snakes in Tobago.

What are the venomous snakes of Trinidad?

The four species are the two Coral and the two Mapipire Snakes.

Coral Snakes
Large Coral – Micrurus lemniscatus diutius
Small Coral – Micrurus circinalis

Mapipire Snakes
Bushmaster aka Mapipire z’anana Lachesis muta muta
Fer-de-lance aka Mapipire balsain Bothrops atrox

Coral snakes are usually easily recognized by their red, yellow/white, and black coloured banding. However, several nonvenomous species – including the False Coral - have similar colouration! Some persons may have been taught that “Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, poison lack”. This is not true for the Trinidad species. Both banding patterns are poisonous.

The mapipire have two elongated, upper maxillary teeth (fang), which can be unfolded from their resting position against the roof of the mouth, to their biting position, where they are almost perpendicular to the upper jaw. Each fang is shed periodically and is replaced by the first reserve fang. They have a deep, easily identifiable pit between the eye and the nostril. (The pit is a heat sensing device that aids in detecting warm-blooded prey at night.) Colour and pattern are deceptive criteria for identification and should only be used by the very knowledgeable.

What First-Aid treatment can be used for snake bites?

Unless the snake has been positively identified as being non-venomous, all snake bites are medical emergencies and the victim should be immediately transported to the nearest health-care facility.

In circumstances where a long time may pass before the victim can seek help from a healthcare professional:

  • Keep the patient as calm as possible.
  • Apply dressing if bleeding.
  • Immobilize the affected limb at or below the level of the heart.
  • A tourniquet or constricting bands should be applied to the bitten limb, between the wound and the heart. The band should be at least an inch (2 – 3 cm) wide and slack enough for a finger to be passed between the wound and the limb. (If the tourniquet is too tight, the venom may be trapped and cause tissue damage and necrosis – tissue death).
  • Transport to the nearest health-care facility.

What are some of the treatments that are NOT advised?

  • Cutting of the wound and sucking out the venom is never recommended. (This has not been shown to have any benefit and it can increase the effect of infection or damage. Additionally, the mapipire’s fang can be over an inch (2.5 cm) long. An incision, by an untrained person, to this depth can result inlife threatening injury. Persons sucking out venom, who have open wounds in their mouths may also be envenomated.)
  • Alcohol should not be used. (Alcohol increases blood flow in the extremities and will help to spread the poison.)
  • Eating dirt and/or ingesting a mixture of mud and water are of no proven benefit.

What is the timeframe after which the poison takes effect?

The time between being bitten and the development of signs of poisoning depends on a number of factors, including:

  • The nature, location, depth and number of bites
  • Amount of venom / poison administered by the snake
  • The species and size of the snake
  • The age and size of the victim
  • The general health of the victim (before the snake bite)
  • The victim’s sensitivity to the venom

I have heard that treatment of venomous snakebites require the use of antivenom. Where in Trinidad is this available?

Not all snakebites will require antivenom treatment. There are instances when the bite may be ‘dry’ (no envenomation). However, The Ministry of Health imports both coral and mapipire antivenom and makes it available to the public at all major Government hospitals in Trinidad.

Is there any scientific validity to some of the more popular ‘sayings’ about snakes and snakebites?

  • If after biting its victim, the snake gets to water before the victim, the victim will surely die. There is no evidence whatsoever to support this.
  • Snakes get their poison by eating frogs / crapauds. Venomous snakes are born with venom / poison in special sacs from which it goes to the fangs. In fact very young snakes can be even deadlier than mature venomous snakes. This is because the mature snake limits the release of venom as warranted by the particular situation (e.g.size of prey), but the young snake invariably release the entire content of their venom stores - until such time as they have learned this control.

Where can I obtain additional information about snakebites?

National Poison Centre
The University of the West Indies
Faculty of Medical Sciences
Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex
Champs Fleurs
Director: Dr. Verrol Simmons
Tel: 800 2742
Fax: 645 7428

The Eastern Regional Health
Authority Poison Information Centre

Sangre Grande District Hospital
Ojoe Road
Sangre Grande
Director: Ms. Angelie Lochan
Tel: 800 2742
Fax: 668 4741