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The Barracuda Dangerous to Man

fish, shark, corpuscles, water and fishes

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All the various recitals above will lead the reader to ask if this fish is not dangerous to man. The answer is that in southern Florida it is more feared than the shark. If the reader will now turn to figures 7, 8, 9, and 10, plate in, showing the teeth, and to pages 62 and 63, on which the formidable dental armature of this fish is described, he will find abundant reason for the dread generally had for this ferocious fish. But he needs to be informed of the utter fearlessness of the fish, of its ferocity, and of its insatiable curiosity.

The ordinary shark is usually an arrant coward. If a shark is "hanging around" a boat or wharf, and a man falls overboard or any large object is thrown overboard, generally that shark will depart in a panic. One day, when we were cruising around off the municipal slaughter-house at Key West, where there were some half dozen 10 foot tiger sharks (Galeocerdo tigrinus) swimming around just out of harpooning distance, I questioned one of the most experienced of Key West fishermen (then in my employ) as to the danger of falling over board in such a locality. He replied that there was practically none, and when, to draw him out, I professed to disbelieve him he coolly offered to prove the matter by jumping overboard on one of the sharks if I would steer him up close enough. So confident was I of the accuracy of his statements that, had the sharks not been wanted for specimens, I would have taken him at his word. Similarly the pad dling and splashing of a number of swimmers will ordinarily drive off any shark. It must, however, be borne in mind that I am speaking of my experience and observations at Beaufort, North Carolina, and in southern Florida only. For an incident illustrative of this character of shark at Beaufort, see the account given by the present writer in 1912. But it is not thus with the big barracuda. He is inquisitive, utterly fearless, and seemingly of implacable temper. The Key West fishermen dread this fish much more than they do the ordinary shark. The whole matter was admirably put 250 years ago by the Sieur de Rochefort (1665) in his "Natural history of the Antilles " : "Among the monsters greedy and desirous of human flesh, which are found on the coasts of the islands, the Becune is one of the most formidable. It is a fish which has the figure of a pike, and which grows to six or eight feet in length and has a girth in proportion. When it has perceived its prey, it launches itself in fury, like a blood-thirsty dog, at the men whom it has per ceived in the water. Furthermore it is able to carry away a part of that which it has been able to catch, and its teeth have so much venom that its smallest bite becomes mortal if one does not have recourse at that very instant to some powerful remedy in order to abate and turn aside the force of this poison." One of the points above noted is expressly corroborated by Fermin (1769), who says in so many words that with its long trenchant teeth it is able to cut clear through and carry off anything which it encoun ters in swimming—a statement which may well be believed.

The other points in Rochefort's accounts are confirmed by Du Tertre (1667), who tells us that: "This fish [which grows to a length of 8 feet] is greedy, blood-thirsty, bold, and is more dangerous than the Requiem [shark] .. . , because besides the fact that it can bite more easily, it is not startled by any noise any more than by the movements which may be made in the water. On the other hand, in order to investigate these, it launches itself at the persons [making these movements] in order to devour them." Sir Hans Sloane (1707) gives some particulars of especial interest when taken in connection with other accounts to follow later: "It is very voracious, and feeds on Blacks, Dogs, and Horses, rather than on White men, when they can come at them in the water."

This is concurred in by that keen observer, William Dampier. In his "Two voyages to Campeachy," which appeared in sixth edition in 1729, he says of "Parricootas," which he describes as long fish, having round bodies, and long mouths with sharp teeth, that: "They commonly haunt in Lagunes among Islands, or in the Sea near the Shore. They are a floating Fish, and greedily take the Hook, and will snap at Men too in the Water." To Pere Labat (1742), of the 18 or 20-foot barracudas, we owe some interesting data and even more interesting conjectures. On the question of its danger to man he writes: "As it is not obliged to turn on its side like the shark when it wishes to bite, it is infinitely more dangerous. Our savages, who attack and kill Requins [sharks] and Pantouffiers [hammerhead sharks] with knives, do not dare to run that risk with Becunes, because, moving with such extraordinary speed, they carry away an arm, a leg, or a head as if they had been cut off with a blow of a sabre. It has happened several times that horses and other animals crossing [the river Gallon] by swimming have had their legs cut off or half their bellies carried away." Going further into the matter, he writes: "One is assured by many experiences that voracious fishes like the Requin, the Pantouflier or Zygrena, and the Becune attack more often a dog or a horse rather than a man, and a negro rather than a white man, when by reason of the overturning of a boat or canoe they find these different species, of animals in the sea. I leave it to the curious to seek the reason, it suffices that that which I report is a veritable fact and testified to by those who have accurate knowledge of America and of other regions where these carnivorous fishes are found. My notion is that the bodies of dogs and horses give off ' corpuscles ' which strike the fishes more strongly and attract them longer. Just as we see that wolves, crows, and even dogs more often come to carrion or to a body in which corruption has begun, rather than to a body which has recently been deprived of life. To my mind also not only are `corpuscles' exhaled by them in large quantities but also they extend farther and strike more strongly the organs of those animals." This recalls and substantiates what Sloane has written on the same subject (see page 95). But Labat further says: "But a thing rather surprising, yet one which is however of public notoriety, is that these same fish more often attack an Englishman than a Frenchman, when they find them both together in the water. It may be that the English man has pores more open than the Frenchmen, and as a necessary consequence he will exhale more corpuscles proper to strike the organs of these fishes and hence attract them." Labat next goes on to argue at some length that there is a difference in the "corpuscles" given off by members of two nations because of a difference in their foods and in their physical habit of body: that the Englishman, being a heavy eater of meats and of a hearty rugged habit of body (" beefy"), all in marked contrast with the more delicate bodied and daintier-feeding Frenchman, will "produce an exhalation of corpuscles whose odor is more penetrating, which scatter farther, and which strike more on the organs of these animals." This con clusion he backs up by quoting the cannibal Caribs that the flesh of an Englishman is more appetizing than that of a Frenchman. He also declares that the Carib trackers can follow an Englishman or a negro through the forests more easily than a Frenchman by simply smelling of their tracks, and by the odor can distinguish the nation of the track-maker. Then he argues that if this is so for men, why should it not hold also for the fishes.

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