How Doth the Little Crocodile

"How Doth the Little Crocodile"

The crocodiles and their close relatives—alligators, caimans, and gavials—are the sole survivors of the great group of reptiles, the Archosauria, which included the awe—inspiring dinosaurs. Indeed the crocodile, which continues to lurk in rivers and swamplands of the tropics, is a living fossil of the Mesozoic (the dinosaur era) of more than 100 million years ago. The first true crocodiles, such as Phobosuchus, the "horror crocodile," were fearsome giants up to 60 feet long, with heads measuring over six feet. Lurking in primeval swamps and estuaries, they likely waxed fat on baby dinosaurs (and an occasional parent).

The modern crocodile, smaller than its ancestors, has also been a terrifying figure. The ancient Egyptians, obsessed with death, venerated the crocodile as a death symbol. Paintings in tombs show the priests feeding special cakes and honey wine to the crocodile, which they regarded as the incarnation of the water god Sebek. The Egyptians embalmed hundreds of crocodiles, decorating their scales with gold rings before laying them to rest in sacred tombs.

The crocodile's domain includes central and southern Africa, the warmer parts of Asia, tropical Pacific islands and northern Australia. Crocodiles and alligators are easily confused, but the two species have distinct profiles. With its jaws closed the teeth of the alligator cannot be seen; crocodile teeth are usually on display, imparting the famous and characteristic crocodile grin. The fourth tooth on each side of the lower jaw, almost tusklike, fits into a dent in the snout and is visible at all times. In general the crocodile has a longer, narrower snout than that of the alligator, which is broad and blunt. Most crocodiles measure from 10 to 20 feet and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. The Pacific saltwater crocodile has been reported (although not confirmed) at over 28 feet in length and weighing 4,400 pounds.

The crocodile, the largest of reptiles, is the most feared beast in the modern world. Many experts believe the crocodile kills more human beings than do tigers, lions, leopards, and snakes put together. Each year in Africa alone, an estimated thousand people are pulled down by crocodiles. When a human—eating cat infests a region, people band together for safety and take every possible precaution, but somehow a fatal carelessness is often manifested in the case of man—eating crocodiles that haunt local waters. Crocodiles will not deliberately seek out human prey, but they do respond to the opportunity. This is confirmed by the fact that most victims are women bathing, washing clothes, or drawing water and children splashing in the shallows.

A crocodile that catches a large animal keeps the victim off balance with a savage sideways yank of its head and pulls the animal into the water. Drowning soon stops the victim's struggles, and the crocodile may roll over and over so that the victim is dismembered. Impressive as the great jaws may be, a crocodile's teeth are not made for chewing. It can therefore eat only something it can swallow whole. Small dogs are a favorite tidbit. If the victim is large, it is towed away to rot and thus become soft enough to tear apart easily. The crocodile will often take prey to a tunnel—like den with a below—water entrance. The den slants upward underground above the waterline, and has an air vent in the roof.

In East Africa a boy about 12 years old was playing at the river's edge when he was seized by a crocodile and pulled into the water as his friends watched helplessly. By enormous luck the reptile's den was only a few yards away. The victim regained consciousness to find himself inside a dim cavern full of decaying carcasses, the crocodile lying alongside him. The boy didn't move a muscle! When the reptile went back into the water, the boy seized the opportunity to enlarge the airhole above him and escape.

The boy's family, sure he was a ghost come back to haunt them, would not let him into the house. He ran to the hut of the chief who, after overcoming his own terror at the sight of the boy, realized the youth had miraculously escaped the crocodile. The chief then went to the family hut and ordered the inmates to open the door to their kin. That night a special feast was held to celebrate a miracle; the main dish was roast crocodile.

Most widespread of the 13 species of crocodile is the Nile crocodile of Africa and Madagascar. It breeds when 5—10 years old by which time it is 7—10 feet long. The male stakes out a territory along the river bank and will defend this bit of land from all intruders. The fights can sometimes be deadly.

To mate, the male approaches a female crocodile and displays himself to her by thrashing the water with his snout and tail. If she approves, the two reptiles swim alongside each other in circles with the male on the outside trying to get near her so he can put a forelimb over her body and mate.

The Nile crocodile digs a pit two feet deep near water and covers the eggs with sand, usually in the shade where the female can guard her brood and keep herself cool. She then stays by the nest during the incubation period defending the eggs against all enemies—including other crocodiles, although they sometimes nest in colonies only a few yards apart. The mother has to be on her guard at all times. Many animals wait for a chance to eat the eggs or the baby crocodiles. Their most aggressive enemy is the monitor lizard, which is occasionally bold enough to dig underneath the mother crocodile as she lies over her nest. Once a male monitor was seen to decoy a mother away from the nest while the female stole the eggs.

In due course the mother hears a hiccuping signal from the hatching young and opens the nest. The babies have an egg tooth on the tip of their snouts with which they break through the tough shell. The female's instinct to dig away the sand covering the nest is so strong that when scientists tested it by building a fence around a nest, the frantic mother tore it to pieces.

Up to 90 eggs are laid during the dry season and hatch three to four months later during the rainy season, when the babies have plenty of insects on which to feed. The newborns, about 10 inches long, are aggressive from the first moment of life, snapping at anything near them. With unerring instinct they head for the nearest water. When necessary for their safety, the mother will carry them to the river's edge in her mouth. Few will live beyond infancy; many predators, including storks, cranes, turtles, predatory fish, and even other crocodiles, find these wiggling infants very tasty. Some crocodile experts estimate that no more than 1 percent of the eggs laid will become mature crocodiles.

Despite its fearsome reputation the crocodile is completely docile at times. The Nile species will often lie on the riverbank with its gigantic jaws wide open. The Egyptian plover, a small bird about the size of a sparrow, flies or walks into the open mouth. Standing on the crocodile's tongue it performs the useful task of picking debris from the crocodile's teeth. This symbiotic relationship has been thoroughly studied by scientists. In fact, whenever these birds are at hand crocodiles will open their jaws deliberately, an evident invitation. Observers have never known the crocodile to close its jaws on the little bird walking into its mouth.

Reptiles are classified as cold—blooded because they can't maintain body temperatures as can mammals and birds. A crocodile can't shiver to keep warm or sweat to keep cool. Its body temperature is usually within a few degrees of its surroundings. So it follows a daily routine to avoid extremes of temperature. Crocodiles come out of the water at sunrise to lie on the banks and bask in the sun. When they have warmed their bodies they move either into the shade or back into the water to avoid the full strength of the midday sun. In late afternoon they bask again, returning to the water by nightfall. Since water holds heat better than air does, the crocodile remains mostly underwater throughout the night.

Basking crocodiles have to worry about cannibalism among the species. So they bask in groups of equal—size crocodiles. Smaller ones take care to keep well away from larger ones. They instinctively know that basking with larger crocodiles will almost certainly be the last thing they ever do.

After World War II the market for crocodile leather products such as shoes, handbags, and luggage was tremendous. This spurred widespread harvesting of the crocodile. Governments have put restrictions on hunting and exporting, but the crocodile is dwindling worldwide. Since many species are valued for their flesh and native people depend on them for essential food, crocodile farms have sprung up to keep pressure off the wild populations. Many lakes, swamps, and rivers now almost bare of crocodiles may look forward to the excitement of their return.

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning