The infamous “Snake Island” has garnered fascination from researchers and scholars worldwide, due to its unusual ecosystem. Located approximately 20 miles off the coast of São Paulo, Ilha da Queimada Grande houses thousands of snakes, some of which are critically endangered. Unfortunately, because of endangerment and other threats such as the illegal exotic animal market, it is illegal to visit the island unless you are part of the Brazilian Navy, or a biologist who has received the proper waiver and permissions. So, if you really want to add this to your bucket list, you’ll have to consider a lengthy study in herpetology.

The island itself is actually quite small. The surface area takes up approximately 110 acres, which comes in at just under a quarter of a square mile. (New York City is just over 300 square miles, for reference). In case it didn’t look enough like the backdrop for Lord of the Flies, the island became overrun with snakes after they ate the other inhabitants and took over the food chain.

The island’s foliage exists as a combination of dense, tropical rainforest with bare clearings of rock and grass; a result of deforestation that actually gave the island its name in the first place. Though the island’s identity stems from the large population of serpents, the phrase “Queimada” (which means “to burn”) comes from Portuguese and alludes to the destruction that took place in the early 1900’s. A lighthouse was constructed on the island in the early 1900’s, but has been unoccupied for over 100 years.

But what created this snake-infested island in the first place? To understand that, we need to look at its evolutionary history. About 11,000 years ago, the water levels rose enough to surround the area, causing it to become an island. As the land became isolated, its inhabitants evolved in order to preserve their survival. Since the island became distant from its original landmass, the amount of land predators slowly reduced to none. As a result, the snakes not only grew largely in population, but adapted a diet of birds and other creatures that populated the island. Ultimately, the combination of time and lack of human settlement has created a unique environment that remains largely mysterious and crawling… or, “slithering”, with life.

Yet one type of snake gathers more attention than the other island inhabitants: The Bothrops insularis, also known as the Golden Lancehead. Biologists estimate that between 2,000-4,000 Golden Lanceheads call Ilha da Queimada Grande home. However, these glistening serpents aren’t exactly friendly neighborhood residents. The bite of a Golden Lancehead contains both venom that is both hemotoxic and neurotoxic, which means their nasty bite not only breaks down flesh and tissue, but also carries the ability to cause brain hemorrhages, kidney failure, and intestinal bleeding.

The toxicity of their venom has fascinated the scientific community for its unique properties, as the Golden Lancehead has a venom that’s 5-7 times more potent than that of the mainland Brazilian snakes. Luckily, the chance of death without treatment is only 7% in other varieties of Lanceheads, and since this island doesn’t have any human occupants, there are no recorded incidents of a Golden Lancehead biting a human.

Though many have heard of the spine-chilling “Snake Island”, few to none have a desire to visit. There are countless stories of shipwrecked sailors and stranded pirates who have met an early demise from the mouth of a serpent, as well as a local tale about the lighthouse keeper whose entire family passed away on the island. However, many chalk these stories up to be nothing but far-fetched myths and legends fabricated to add an element of terror and intrigue to the island’s history.

As far as tourism goes, your chances of stepping foot onto Ihla da Quiemada Grande are little to none without the proper clearance, so you might want to stick to daydreaming in the reptile house. But if you don’t believe me, just ask the Golden Lancehead.

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