Although reptiles thrive in Yucatán’s warm, sunny environment, humans are their worst enemy. In the past, some species were greatly reduced in number because they were hunted for their unusual skin. Although hunting them is now illegal in most countries, a few black marketers still take their toll on the species.
The caiman is a part of the crocodilian order. Its habits and appearance are similar to those of crocodiles, with the main difference being in its underskin; the caiman’s skin is reinforced with bony plates on the belly, making it useless for the leather market. (Alligators and crocodiles, with smooth belly skin and sides, have been hunted almost to extinction in some parts of the world because of the value of their skin.)
Several species of caiman often frequent the brackish inlet waters near the Yucatán’s estuaries. They are broad snouted and often look as though they’re sporting a pair of glasses. A large caiman can be 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) long and very dark gray-green, with eyelids that look swollen and wrinkled. Some caiman species have eyelids that look like a pair of blunt horns. They are quicker than alligators and have longer, sharper teeth.
Skilled hunters, caiman are quick in water and on land, and will attack a person if cornered. The best advice is to give caimans a wide berth if spotted.
This group of American lizards—family Iguanidae—includes various large plant eaters seen frequently in Quintana Roo. Iguanas grow to be one meter (3.3 feet) long and have a blunt head and long flat tail. Bands of black and gray circle its body, and a serrated column reaches down the middle of its back almost to the tail. The young iguana is bright emerald green and often supplements its diet by eating insects and larvae.
The lizard’s forelimbs hold the front half of its body up off the ground while its two back limbs are kept relaxed and splayed alongside its hindquarters. When the iguana is frightened, however, its hind legs do everything they’re supposed to, and the iguana crashes quickly (though clumsily) into the brush searching for its burrow and safety. This reptile is not aggressive—it mostly enjoys basking in the bright sunshine along the Caribbean—but if cornered it will bite and use its tail in self-defense.
From centuries past, recorded references attest to the iguana’s medicinal value, which partly explains the active trade of live iguana in the marketplaces. Iguana stew is believed to cure or relieve various human ailments.
You’ll see a great variety of other lizards on the peninsula; some are brightly striped in various shades of green and yellow, others are earth toned and blend in with the gray and beige limestone that dots the landscape. Skinny as wisps of thread running on hind legs, or chunky and waddling with armorlike skin, the range is endless and fascinating.
Be sure to look for the black anole, which changes colors to match its environment, either when danger is imminent or as subterfuge to fool the insects on which it feeds. At mating time, the male anole puffs out its bright-red throat fan so that all female lizards will see it.
Two species of coral snakes, which are related to the cobra, are found in the southern part of the Yucatán Peninsula. They have prominent rings around their bodies in the same sequence of red, black, yellow, or white and grow to 1–1.5 meters (3.3–4.9 feet). Their bodies are slender, with no pronounced distinction between the head and neck.
Coral snakes spend the day in mossy clumps under rocks or logs, emerging only at night. Though the bite of a coral snake can kill within 24 hours, chances of the average tourist being bitten by a coral (or any other) snake are slim.
The tropical rattlesnake (cascabel in Spanish) is the deadliest and most treacherous species of the rattler. It differs slightly from other species by having vividly contrasting neckbands. It grows 2–2.5 meters (6.6–8.2 feet) long and is found mainly in the higher and drier areas of the tropics. Contrary to popular myth, this serpent doesn’t always rattle a warning of its impending strike.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition