As the sun sets on the horizon, Sisal’s famous prehistoric reptile slides into the endless shallows of its swampy domain to begin its nightly hunt. The darkness hanging over murky marshlands keeps everything in shadow, giving the ambush predator a distinct advantage over unsuspecting creatures wandering too close to its jaws. Sisaleños are no strangers to the majestic Morelet crocodile or ‘lagarto’, as it is known in the small village hugging Yucatan’s coastline within El Palmar Nature Reserve. Actually, they have shared living arrangements for centuries, but their relationship has changed drastically in the last decade or so, as citizens swapped hunting traditions for sustainable conservation. There’s even a resident lagarto by the name of ‘Juancho’ who is quite friendly with fishermen and their dogs, waiting patiently for scraps from the day’s catch. The pack of barking dogs know well to keep their distance or risk becoming another side dish for Juancho. Nevertheless, there seems to be mutual respect between them.
One of the more active conservationists, Don José, 67, known locally as Don Zurdo, has memorized the labyrinth of mangrove canals through the swamp. He belongs to the ‘Ziz-Ha’ cooperative, a group of guides aiming to promote ecotourism in Sisal through tours of mangroves and beaches around the Port of Sisal. Don Zurdo considers himself a ‘man of nature’ who has spent more than 50 years dedicated to maintaining the unique cultural heritage of fewer than 2,000 residents. He has tracked lagartos from a young age, demonstrating an encyclopaedic knowledge of Sisal’s emblematic reptile, especially its feeding habits through different stages of its life. His immediate answer was simple when asked what lagartos prefer on their menu during feeding time.
Knowledge of this small species of crocodile has increased rapidly over the past two decades, yet there remains a limited study of their feeding habits. That’s why anecdotes from experienced locals can turn into invaluable information for scientists and nature observers alike. The Morelet is one of the smaller species of crocodile and can grow up to three metres, although Don Zurdo claims he has seen larger individuals on rare occasions. Its feeding habits vary greatly from its juvenile, sub-adult and adult stages. His countless hours observing their behaviour revealed that small individuals feed mainly on small fish, insects and sometimes snails with soft shells. Once out of the juvenile stage, medium-sized lagartos eat mollusks, fish, and crustaceans, while adults prey on reptiles, mammals, and birds.
“Many of them like to make nests in the cenotes that connect to the swampland, and then the babies feed on the small fish and crustaceans living inside,” he continued. “It’s safer than the swampland, where there are more predators.”
Inevitably, there have been reports of contact with humans, but Don Zurdo insists injuries have been caused by accident rather than someone hunted down with intent.
“I remember a young guy who was trying to show off to some visitors that he could hold a small Lagarto in his hand,” he frowned disapprovingly. “He learned his lesson when it bit his finger and locked its jaws. He didn’t lose it, but it looked extremely painful when it released its grip.”
As local legends go, Don Zurdo recalls coming across the bodies of a lagarto and a ‘tigrillo’ (a large species of jungle cat). They were still breathing but exhausted and bloodied by battle, so the hunters thought it unfair to take them. The next day, both had disappeared and he still wonders to this day which one survived and left safely with a full stomach.
“It was quite amazing really how powerful these animals are and how they can survive these brutal encounters.”
By Mark Viales
International freelance journalist from the Rock of Gibraltar. A singer/songwriter with a passion for travel and fluent in four languages.
Fotografía por Mark Viales para su uso en Yucatán Today.
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