The Daily Edit – Friday
4.20.12

- - The Daily Edit

 

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*Brazil Newsstand Week*

Editor note: Heidi Volpe is in Sao Paulo, Brazil for a magazine redesign project and this weeks Daily Edit comes from the newsstand there. This could be the beginning of periodic visit to the newsstands in other countries.

National Geographic

Editor in Chief: Matthew Shirts
Art Director: Cristina Veit
Senior Editor: Ronaldo Ribeiro
Assistant Editor: Thiago Medaglia
Designer: Roberto Sakai
Coordinator: Cristina Catussatto

Photographer: João Marcos Rosa

Note: Content for The Daily Edit is found on the newsstands. Submissions are not accepted

 

Heidi: How were the photographers protected against the snakes? Did they have any special gear?

Christina: They wore leather protectors over their pants and took extra care to approach the snakes – it’s not an aggressive species; and reacts only when threatened.

Did you have a team of people that were familiar with this variety of snakes?

Our reporters took their chances on the island to accompany the work of the biologists who are studying the species, in a rare opportunity to document the place – journalists and people in general are not authorized to stay overnight on the island, which is a protected area.

How and why do they catch birds?

Between 10 thousand and 12 thousand years ago, when Earth’s last ice-age ended, the area that is now the island was definitively surrounded by water, due to the rising sea level. The population of snakes, which were of the same species as those on the continent (Bothropoides jararaca), became isolated. Without any small mammals to eat, the snakes had to adapt to life in the treetops. The only food available now was birds, which stopped to rest on the island during migrations. The altered eating habits forced changes. While its continental relative has terrestrial habits in its adult life, the golden lancehead has acquired the ability to dangle from tree tops by its tail, which laces around branches to support it.

Why are they so deadly?

There are more than 2 thousand snakes in the island, their venom is five times more potent than that of the continental jararaca.

How close did the photographers get to the snakes? Were they using special lens or cameras

João Marcos Rosa, the photographer got pretty close to the snakes – the biologists gave him directions on how to approach safely. He made a lot of macro shots. But he also used some medium distance lenses – a 200 mm.

 

( here is the story )

The Isle of Snakes

 

The island of Queimada Grande, a granite rock covered in Atlantic Forest, 33 kilometers off the coast of Itanhaém, on the south coast of São Paulo State, is the sole habitat of an endemic species, the golden lancehead (Bothropoides insularis), a yellow pit viper with brown spots that is one of Brazil’s most poisonous snakes.

The island isn’t at all hospitable for visitors, from small migratory birds to the rare human beings who dare set foot in its 78 hectares (72 soccer fields). Because there are no beaches, embarking and disembarking is always complicated, if not impossible. There are no potable water sources or lodgings awaiting researchers. The trails are steep and it is very hot there. There are poisonous spiders and, of course, the snakes – on the ground, in the rocks, in the grass, in the trees, everywhere.

Between 10 thousand and 12 thousand years ago, when Earth’s last ice-age ended, the area that is now the island was definitively surrounded by water, due to the rising sea level. The population of snakes, which were of the same species as those on the continent (Bothropoides jararaca), became isolated. Without any small mammals to eat, the snakes had to adapt to life in the treetops. The only food available now was birds, which stopped to rest on the island during migrations.

The altered eating habits forced changes. While its continental relative has terrestrial habits in its adult life, the golden lancehead has acquired the ability to dangle from tree tops by its tail, which laces around branches to support it. Another difference is in the potency of its venom, which is much more lethal than that of the common jararaca.

Concentrated in such a small area, however, the golden lancehead is endangered. Endogamy leads to the low genetic variability of individuals, which makes them more susceptible to disease and abnormalities. Our reporters took their chances on the island for two weeks to accompany the work of the biologists who are studying the species, in a rare opportunity to document the place – generally, journalists are not authorized to stay overnight on the island, which is a protected area.

 

(captions)

 

Approximately 2 thousand golden lanceheads like this one live on Queimada Grande Island; although few people visit the place, the species is critically endangered.

 

The species’ semi-arboreal habits were acquired when it became isolated from the continent; without mammals on the island, the snakes had to adapt to life in the trees in order to hunt birds, which they kill with venom five times more potent than that of the continental jararaca.

 

Tree-climbing is for grown-ups. During their youth, the snakes live on the ground, also inhabited by animals that serve as nourishment, such as centipedes, snails and small frogs; with no sources of potable water on the island, all of the animals depend on natural repositories, such as bromeliads.

 

In the absence of beaches, landing is always tense, with a more skillful member of the expedition having to tie a rope to serve as support for the others. Once on land, the tents must be assembled quickly, as there is no shelter (natural or artificial) for the few who venture out there, such as the members of the Galápagos/Instituto Vital Brazil expedition, who visited the island in 2010.

 

MAP OF THE ISLAND

Located 33 km off the coast of Itanhaém, on the south coast of São Paulo State, Queimada Grande Island is 1.2 km long and has a total of 78 hectares. The highest point is Boa Vista Peak, 210 meters above sea level. Few people are authorized to land, among whom, Brazilian Navy employees who perform maintenance on the lighthouse, installed in the early 20th century and automated in the 1940s, which now runs on solar energy. Researchers visit the island regularly, but few have seen the cave located on the south part of the island. Much of the island is covered in native forest, but thickets of invading species cause large natural fires.

Breeding golden lanceheads in captivity is one solution for studying them at close range and also creating a genetic reserve – 71 live outside of their habitat nowadays, such as these specimens at the Instituto Vital Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro. This baby snake was born in captivity. Its descendents may one day be introduced to the island to increase the genetic variability of its population, where there is currently a high degree of consanguinity.

 

 

 

Heidi Volpe

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