Danger in nature – all snakes and no ladders

Spot the snake (answer at the end)

“There’s danger everywhere!” exclaimed the twelve-year-old, after her little sister told her that scorpions like to nest in dry railway sleepers of the kind they were both standing on in the backyard.

The twelve-year-old retreated to the security of the house and her phone, the three-year-old found a stick and started poking it into the holes in the sleepers in hopes of seeing a scorpion emerge.

I have to say that my thoughts echo the twelve-year-old’s. In Brazil it seems there really is danger everywhere.

I should mention that I grew up in a farm in the UK in the 80s and 90s and there was plenty of unsupervised play and risk-taking. Unbeknownst to my parents, my brother and I used to wait until the cows were at the feeding trough and then climb down from the hayrack and onto their backs so we could ride them. We weren’t heavy enough to hurt them but they didn’t like us on there and would throw us off.

I would say my inherited worldview of the natural world and wildlife (ie my default approach) is one of respect with the assumption that wildlife will not try to harm me since I will try not to harm it.

Having come to Brazil five years ago, I am having to learn about my new environment from scratch and the stakes here are much higher since many non-venomous species in the UK have a venomous equivalent here. I wrote about my first run-in with a Brazilian animal that I assumed was harmless here.

It was a wake up call for me. It was also apparently the first of a pattern, since my husband had actually warned me about the toxic bite of the lacraia (centipede) years before.

During lockdown (and having recently moved to the rural interior of Brazil from a favela community in Rio de Janeiro) I started taking my then two-year-old to the river to play Pooh sticks.

At some point, my husband mentioned that they were snakes near the river (possibly after we came across the remains of a large snake hung up on a wall along the road to the river). I’m not sure why I didn’t take it in at the time.

The remains of a snake (maybe 1.5m long)

It was after months of wheeling a pushchair or walking with my little one through scrubby grass on our way down to the river after the worst heat of the day, that an angler approached us as we were heading home and, addressing me in the politest and most respectful manner possible, warned me about the various pit vipers found in the long grass there.

I had been completely oblivious and was both shocked to learn of the risks I had unwittingly been taking with a two-year-old and glad that he had taken the time to warn me.

My daughter had just turned three when we went to visit her great-grandparents in a nearby town and ended up popping in to see the animals on her great-grandfather’s farm. There was a slightly surreal moment while feeding the chickens in which he explained some amorous chicken behaviour to the little one and in the same breath named two deadly snakes – jararaca and urutu – which they had found in the barn where we were standing. Jararaca (Bothrops jararaca) and urutu (Bothrops alternatus) are highly venomous pit vipers. He loses around ten animals per year to snakes, mainly to South American rattlesnakes (cascavel or Crotalus durissus terrificus). And these are bullocks weighing up to half a tonne each.

Having never seen any of these snakes, it was still relatively easy to feel a large degree of disconnection. Even when we did come across a snake in the forest (while walking quietly in the hope of seeing sloths), we were a group of two adults and three children and we had time to think about what to do, the children didn’t start screaming and we were able to weigh up our options, pass the snake and carry on along the path.

My husband didn’t think the snake was venomous, his grandmother (when told later) didn’t think the snake was that venomous and all in all, it was an exciting story to tell. It looked to be a beautiful dark khaki cobra-cipó (Chironius exoletus or Linnaeus’ sipo in English).

My husband had told me to always watch out for snakes in the backyard, particularly after a neighbour a few doors away had been bitten by a jararaca pit viper in her garden (and survived). I’d been told that chickens would attack snakes though so I wasn’t too worried.

The real snake shock came when we went to a different part of the river, where I was hoping to see some birds but was already resigned to the fact that three noisy children would already have frightened away all the shy wading birds and I had little to no chance of seeing any. A lone moorhen was paddling around some vegetation around 10m away and a great egret was fishing undisturbed on the far side of the river. After the children had climbed up the steps from the river I thought I would have a look from the water’s edge just in case I could spot a socozinho (striated heron) or carão (limpkin).

A movement caught my eye which I assumed to be a young socozinho swimming towards the grasses where the moorhen had been. It was the same mottled colour and brought to mind the thickness of a socozinho’s neck. I was confused that I hadn’t seen it before that moment. I’m not sure how many seconds I got before it disappeared from view and I sprinted up the steps to get another look, and then sprinted back down again. I joined the rest of the family and casually asked if there were any types of snakes that swam with their heads out of the water, like an elbow and bent wrist.

My husband and mother-in-law then explained to me that sucuri do that when about to strike their prey. The word sucuri was new to me and I was naively working out that a snake long enough to raise its head 20cm out of the water must be at least a metre long and was shocked to think it could have been two metres.

We arrived home and I looked up the word sucuri to find that in English it is green anaconda (Eunectes murinus), which may grow to 5 metres. A neighbour stopped to talk to my mother-in-law while I was still babbling about anacondas and mentioned that she was the one who had been bitten by a jararaca in her backyard. To cap it all, I discovered that she even has chickens, thereby crushing all my hopes of the magical protective properties of chickens in one fell swoop.

I happened to remember that we had seen (from a distance) what was probably an anaconda swimming in the river a while back. Seeing the green anaconda hunting the moorhen, fleetingly but from relatively close by, brought it all back. That night I had nightmarish thoughts about being caught in the water by an anaconda and taken into a death roll (too much Crocodile Dundee) and foolishly mentioned this to my husband, who laughed and said that anacondas rarely attacked humans and what killed far more people and what I really needed to worry about were electric eels and rattlesnakes that swim on the surface of the water and which I hadn’t even considered. Totally reassured by this, I resolved never to leave the house again.

I scared myself last night while I was checking facts in this post, particularly when my husband showed me photos of pit vipers. Since they curl themselves up so tightly and are so well camouflaged, it is easy to mistake them for horsedung and not realise until far too late.

My husband’s grandmother told me about the time her grandfather was bitten on the hand by a small urutu pit viper. He was thankfully able to get to a hospital with the appropriate antidote and retained his sight although he was never able to close his hand again

In this post, I have limited my ramblings for the most part to my experiences with snakes.

There is much in the natural world that I love and find thrilling. And there have also been moments in Brazil where I join the twelve-year-old in saying “There’s danger everywhere” and not wanting to leave the house ever again.

I would love to hear your thoughts! Have you had experiences with danger in nature? Have they changed your approach to your environment?

Linnaeus’ sipo snake

2 thoughts on “Danger in nature – all snakes and no ladders

  1. That sounds absolutely terrifying! In Japan I never really appreciated the reality of bear attacks until I read that one had come into a kimono shop in a town nearby and killed a woman. We are quite spoiled in the UK 🙂


    1. Wow, yes. Ignorance is bliss/dangerous, isn’t it? I think countries should provide information packs to foreigners including a section on ‘survival tips you would already know if you grew up here’.


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