Belize crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii)

Also known as: Morelet’s crocodile
  
French: Crocodile de Morelet
Spanish: Cocodrilo de Morelet, Cocodrilo de Pantano y Lagarto
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassReptilia
OrderCrocodylia
FamilyCrocodylidae
GenusCrocodylus (1)
SizeLength: up to 3.5 m (2)

The Belize crocodile is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix I of CITES (3).

Like other crocodilians, the group of reptiles that inspire both fear and intrigue in people, the Belize crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii) has an elongated snout; a streamlined body protected with tough, scaly skin; and a long, muscular tail (4). Its armoured skin is variable in colour (5), although normally it is greyish-brown with black bands and spots on the tail and sides (2) (6). Juveniles are bright yellow with black banding (6), and adult males are usually darker than females, which retain more of the yellow colour (5). The eyes are pale silvery-brown (2), and placed on its head so that only these and the tip of its snout can be seen as the crocodile sits submerged in water, waiting to ambush its prey (4). Often in the past this species was confused with the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) (7), but it differs by its darker colouration and shorter and broader head (5) (6). The genus name of this species, Crocodylus, appropriately means ‘pebble worm’ in Greek (6).

The Belize crocodile occurs on the Atlantic coast of Central America (7), from the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, southwards to Belize and northern Guatemala. Its range may also extend into northern Honduras (2).

An inhabitant of swampland, ponds, marshes and lagoons, the Belize crocodile prefers areas of dense vegetation (2). Although it generally occurs in freshwater (2), it may also be found in the brackish waters of coastal lagoons (5).

The indiscriminate and somewhat ferocious feeding behaviour of crocodiles is notorious, but less known is their sociable nature, a rare feature in the world of reptiles (4). Not only do female Belize crocodiles guard their nests and protect their young, males may also assist with care of the young hatchlings (2). The female constructs a mound of vegetation, up to one metre high and three metres across, situated close to water. At the end of the dry season (2), usually between April and June (5), a clutch of 20 to 45 eggs are laid, each measuring ten centimetres across. For the next 80 days, the female remains close to the nest, finally helping her young out of the nest once the eggs hatch (2).

Young Belize crocodiles initially eat small fish and hunt invertebrates, such as crickets, at the water’s edge (2). As they grow, the diet also expands, to include larger fish, aquatic snails, small mammals (2), crustaceans and frogs (5). Eventually, the Belize crocodile will devour anything that comes close to the water (5).

During the hottest part of the day, the Belize crocodile takes refuge in an underground burrow which it has dug. This burrow, which may be several metres long, usually has an underwater entrance and a larger chamber with an air hole (5).

Numbers of the Belize crocodile have declined dramatically throughout its range, primarily as a result of hunting for its beautiful skin. The scale of hunting was once so massive that in the mid 1950s up to 1,000 skins could be sold in a day in a single market in Mexico. As a result, the Belize crocodile is now extinct in some parts of Mexico (2).

While legal protection for the Belize crocodile now exists, enforcement is difficult and illegal hunting remains a major threat to the continued survival of this species (2). In some ways, the situation has actually worsened, with increasing development opening up some previously remote areas, allowing hunters to penetrate further into this crocodile’s range (2). In addition, while in the past hunters were said to have left some of the older crocodiles so that they would continue to breed, hunters today are believed to decimate whole populations without any thought for their future (2).

Furthermore, crocodiles are perceived as a threat to both humans and livestock, resulting in the occasional killing of a crocodile near human settlements, and a number of Belize crocodiles also drown in fishing and turtle nets each year (8). In Mexico, habitat destruction is believed to be causing a steady decline in numbers of the crocodile (6). Finally, the Belize crocodile may be threatened by long-term exposure to environmental contaminants, such as pesticides. While the effects of exposure are not yet fully known, the decline of American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) in Florida following exposure to similar chemical contaminants, gives cause for concern (8).

Wild populations of Belize crocodiles are protected in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala (7). While enforcement of these laws is difficult (2), they have still been incredibly beneficial to this species, with population recoveries in Belize being largely attributed to a ban on crocodile skin exports. This has removed the incentive for people to hunt crocodiles and has allowed numbers to recover from previous over-harvesting (8). The Belize crocodile also occurs in a number of protected areas throughout its range (7) (8), such as the Centla Biosphere Reserve and the Sian Kaán Biosphere Preserve in Mexico, where healthy populations exist (7). Efforts to develop programmes for the sustainable use of this species are also underway, and a number of commercial farming operations have started in Mexico (7), which will lessen hunting pressure on wild populations. In addition, in Tuxtla Guiterrez Zoo, Mexico, Belize crocodiles were bred and hatchlings reared for a year before being released into areas where the species has been previously wiped out (2).

For further information on the Belize crocodile and other crocodile species: 

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Alderton, D. (2004) Crocodiles and Alligators of the World. Facts on File Inc, New York.
  3. CITES (December, 2007)
    http://www.cites.org
  4. Halliday, T. and Adler, K. (2002) The New Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. Navarro, C.J. (2004) The Return of Morelet’s crocodile Crocodylus moreletii. Reptilia, 36: 54 - 60.
  6. Crocodilian.com (June, 2008)
    http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/cnhc
  7. Thorbjarnarson, J. (1992) Crocodiles: An Action Plan for their Conservation. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.
  8. Platt, S.G. and Thorbjarnarson, J.B. (2000) Population status and conservation of Morelet's crocodile, Crocodylus moreletii, in northern Belize. Biological Conservation, 96: 21 - 29.