Crocodile Hunting in Central America
KARL P. SCHMIDT
CHIEF CURATOR, DEPARTMENT OF ZOOLOGY
Crocodile Hunting in Central America – In 1922, I came to Chicago Natural History Museum (then Field Museum of Natural History) to take charge of a newly organized Division of Reptiles and Amphibians.
There were only about four thousand scientific specimens for the new division to take over, and the exhibition material consisted mostly of mounted skins of lizards and snakes and turtles, with a large stuffed alligator and a gavial to represent the crocodilians.
All these were from the original collection at the World’s Columbian Exposition, a part of the Ward Collection that formed the nucleus of the Museum’s zoological exhibits.
We needed exhibition material and specimens to build up study collections. I was fortunate in having as assistant Mr. Leon L. Walters, already with long service in the Museum, and we wished to apply his already perfected “celluloid technique” in the preparation of our future exhibition specimens.
My previous studies had been in the West Indies, and I turned eagerly to the richer reptilian life of Central America for our first expedition. Thus, it was that Mr. Walters and I spent four months in British Honduras and Honduras in 1923.
Our crocodile collecting, which was in the interest of both science and exhibition, afforded the highlights of a rich experience in a tropical world new to both of us.
THE BELIZE CROCODILE: Rediscovery of a “Lost Species”
We failed to find the common and widespread American crocodile in British Honduras in a situation suitable for the habitat group we envisaged for the Museum, but our hunting trips in the swamps behind Belize were rewarded by the rediscovery of a distinct species of crocodile, described from this region seventy years before from the collections of the French Traveller, Morelet. It had been so long uncollected that its very existence was beginning to be doubted in scientific circles.
Morelet’s crocodile—or the Belize crocodile, as we prefer to call it—readily distinguishable by its dark brown color and short, wide snout, proved to be abundant at Belize, and we obtained numerous juvenile specimens by “shining their eyes” at night as they lay at the surface of the swamp.
The great majority of specimens were less than two feet in length, and we wanted to secure an adult, to confirm the differences between this form and its better-known relative.
The swamps behind Belize are intersected by the well banked
road that leads from the town to the interior of the country. We started down this road one night for a visit to the swamp, armed with collecting pistols and shotguns and provided with the headlights that enable one to discover animals by the reflection of their eyes.
Some distance beyond the last cattle sheds, at a place where the swamp was rather open, merging into a cattail marsh, I saw the eye of what appeared to be a large crocodile some twenty yards
from the road.
I fired at this with the .22 caliber long barrel led pistol, apparently without effect, though the eye disappeared a few moments later.
Deciding to make a closer investigation, I waded out into the knee-deep water, locating the position where the eye was last seen by its proximity to a clump of bushes.
On arriving at this spot, I could see clearly outlined, and not two feet from me, what seemed to be an eight-foot crocodile, lying motionless on the bottom. I moved slowly to one side, trying for a more favorable shot at his head, but did not allow sufficiently for the depth of the water, so that the .22 ball struck the crocodile on the corner of the skull instead of in the ear as intended.
The shock of the ball, which glanced off, had a peculiar effect on him. He came to the surface and dashed madly about in a short figure eight path, with jaws wide open, and came to a stop just in front of me, still with jaws open.
Fearing that we would lose the only good-sized crocodile we had seen, I made a despairing grab for his eyes with thumb and finger. This proved to be a decidedly effective hold, for I had no difficulty in carrying him ashore.
Changing my hold to the front of his jaws almost proved disastrous, for although it was easy to hold the jaws shut, he was able to twist over and over with astonishing rapidity, necessitating equally rapid changes of hands on his snout to avoid laceration by the sharp projecting teeth.
Mr. Walters, meanwhile, had joined me, and our combined efforts made the complete subjection of our crocodile easy. With jaws tied shut and both pairs of legs tied over his back (by means of our leather shoestrings) he could still roll over and over, and it was necessary to tie him to a convenient fence rail with our belts.
It was somewhat disappointing to find that the actual length of the crocodile, five feet and three inches, was much less than my first impression had led me to expect.
Our further experience with a smaller specimen (just under four feet), shot by Mr. Walters shortly after, made the barehanded capture of even small crocodiles seem rather foolhardy.
The specimen shot by him was wounded and hid in shallow muddy water. When Mr. Walters touched its back, he narrowly escaped being bitten, and subsequent prodding with the gun stock, which was struck at by the crocodile with an almost snake-like violence, proved that a specimen of this size could be a decidedly dangerous customer.
Our specimen was converted into a skin, skeleton, and plaster mold in our Belize backyard. It was especially fortunate that we could solve the problems of posing the animal and of making plaster molds with a medium-sized individual before attempting the much larger specimens of the American crocodile that we desired for a habitat group.
Our mold was later converted into the handsome model of the Belize crocodile, now on display in the Museum.
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