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What Is a Fer-De-Lance?

Fer-de-lance adult snakes are able to tolerate desert environments.
The fer-de-lance is found in parts of Central and South America.
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  • Written By: A. Delgado
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 14 December 2014
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A fer-de-lance is a venomous and aggressive snake found in wooded and open areas in parts of Central and South America. The term is used to refer to a few different species of pit vipers that have slight variations, although all are known for being well-camouflaged in their environments. They're mainly active at night and use their heat-sensing pits to find prey, which ranges from large insects to mammals. The fer-de-lance is feared by humans due to its highly venomous bite.

The range of fer-de-lance snakes extends from the northwestern part of South America to parts of Mexico. They are common in Central American countries, such as Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and Guatemala. While some dwell in tropical rain forests, cloud forests and evergreen forests, others inhabit open coastal lowlands and savannas. Most prefer humid climates, although some adults are able to tolerate desert climates.

Fer-de-lance, which means "the pointed iron tip of the lance" in French, is a common name for a few pit vipers in the Bothrops genus. Bothrops lanceolatus is a species mainly found in Martinique. It is also referred to as the Martinican pit viper or Martinique lancehead. The species Bothrops asper, or terciopelos, and Bothrops atrox, or common lancehead, have much larger ranges.

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The coloring of fer-de-lance snakes provides them with excellent camouflage, which helps them stalk prey. Their scales range from medium brown or olive green to black on their backs, while their underbellies are often a paler color. Each species has a wide variety of scale patterns. Their heads are pointed and triangular and contain heat-sensing pits. Common lanceheads can reach lengths of up to 6.5 feet (about 1.9 meters), while terciopeles reach an average length of 3.9 feet (about 1.1 meters).

Mating occurs once a year, although the time differs depending on where the snake lives. Gestation usually lasts between six and eight months. Females give birth to live young rather than laying eggs as some other snake species do. Larger females are capable of giving birth to around 80 offspring at one time. The young, which are born with venomous glands, are left on their own.

Juvenile fer-de-lance snakes generally prey on large insects and small lizards. An adult's diet consists of mammals, such as opossums and rodents, larger lizards and amphibians. Fer-de-lance snakes seek their prey at night using their heat-sensing pits. They hide their presence using their camouflage scales, then strike with venomous bites that kill swiftly.

Fer-de-lance snakes pose a threat to humans since they often live near plantations, farms and other inhabited areas. They're known for being aggressive and hard to see as they lie coiled up in the grass during the day. Most human deaths resulting from snakebites in these areas are due to the fer-de-lance.

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