The Saltwater Crocodile—King of the Reptile World
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN PALAU
RULERSHIP over the Palau archipelago, in the Pacific Ocean, has often been challenged. The first colonial power to rule these tropical islands, located 550 miles [890 km] east of the Philippines, was Spain. In time, Spain was replaced by Germany, and Germany by Japan. After Japan, the United States took over and ruled the region until 1994 when the Republic of Palau became a sovereign state.
During all these challenges, though, another type of rulership on the islands was never challenged. What was that? The rulership by the saltwater crocodile—the undisputed king of Palau’s reptile world. Today, however, the throne of the crocodiles is shaky. In fact, researchers say that “unless urgent and strict measures are taken to protect the species, the saltwater crocodile will soon become extinct in the wild in Palau.”
Why are Palau’s crocodiles in trouble? And why could they be given the title king of the reptile world in the first place?
The saltwater crocodile goes by the scientific name Crocodylus porosus, meaning “a crocodile full of callosities.”* This name refers to the scaly humps on the upper surface of its snout. They form two ridges running from the eyes to the nostrils. The snout is shaped like a triangle and makes up about one seventh of the entire body length. One croc, showcased in Palau Museum, measures 18 inches [40 cm] across the widest part of its king-size head!
When the crocodile’s lower jaw drops open, you stare at scissor-sharp teeth anchored in jaws that can be shut with devastating force. The only weak parts of the jaws are the muscles for opening them. One source says that a rubber band is usually sufficient to keep the mouth of a seven-foot-long [2 m] crocodile closed.
The crocodile’s head is not only huge but also masterly designed for its aquatic world. Take a closer look (at a stuffed croc, that is!), and you will notice that the ears, eyes, and nostrils form the highest points on its head. They project just above the water’s surface when the croc floats. Curiously, though, even when the animal shuts its mouth, it cannot keep water out, since it has no lips covering the jawbone. But water that enters the mouth cannot flow into the throat because a valve blocks the entrance to the throat. And since air is inhaled through the nostrils and enters the body behind this valve, the croc can breathe while its mouth is full of water.
And what about underwater vision? No problem at all. While submerged, the crocodile draws a clear membrane, or third eyelid, across its eyes. This membrane protects the eye without causing loss of vision.
The saltwater crocodile is the largest reptile in the world. When males reach ten and a half feet [3.2 m], they are mature but keep growing for many more years. Mark Carwardine, author of The Guinness Book of Animal Records, states that a wildlife sanctuary in India houses a male saltwater crocodile that measures 23 feet [7 m] in length!
The croc’s habitat has royal dimensions as well. The same source says that the home range of the saltwater crocodile is larger than that of all other species of crocodiles. Saltwater crocodiles live throughout the tropical regions of Asia and the Pacific, an area stretching from India to Australia and the Palau archipelago.
The mangrove swamps on the Palau islands provide the crocodiles with shade, protection, and abundant food. It is no wonder, then, that these reptiles picked the Palau archipelago as one of their breeding and stamping grounds. In fact, the number of crocodiles living on these islands during the 1960’s was estimated to be somewhere between 1,500 and 5,000.
December 1965, however, marked a turning point for the crocodiles on Palau. That month a saltwater crocodile attacked and killed a Palauan fisherman. Some weeks later, the animal was captured and put on public display. The public became so enraged with the captured animal that it was put to death.
“A War Against the Species”
Shortly after this, explain crocodile experts Harry Messel and F. Wayne King, the authorities launched “a campaign to eradicate all crocodiles in Palau, no matter where they occurred. It was little more than a war against the species.” Bounties were offered, traps were installed, and hunting boats were used to go after the animals. From 1979 to 1981, hunters shot between 500 and 1,000 crocodiles. They skinned the animals and sold their hides.
Since adult crocs have a large hide, they became a special target. However, each time hunters killed a mature female, they also prevented the hatching of the 1,000 or so babies that the female might have produced during her lifetime. Consequently, the crocodile population dwindled. In the early 1990’s, Messel and King found that there were “fewer than 150 crocodiles remaining in the wild in Palau.”
Granted, man has reason to be wary of saltwater crocodiles, for their attacks can be fatal. Even so, notes author Carwardine, “the harm they do us is minuscule compared to the devastation we have reaped on them.”
In 1997 the Ngardok Nature Reserve was established. Although this reserve has not been established primarily for the protection of saltwater crocodiles, they benefit from the reserve. The marshes surrounding Lake Ngardok provide the crocodiles with a place to hide and to breed.
The saltwater crocodile may not be your idea of a close friend, but don’t you agree that it makes an impressive king?
Porosus comes from the Greek word porosis, meaning “a callosity,” and the Latin suffix -osus, meaning “full of.”
[Box on page 27]
Saying that someone sheds crocodile tears means that he shows grief or sympathy without being sincere about it. But why are crocodiles depicted as hypocrites? According to The International Wildlife Encyclopedia, one possible source of this saying may be the fact that crocodiles keep their eyes moist. Thus, “tears, or water trapped in their lids, may run from the corners of their eyes. This, with the permanent grin of their jaws, could have led to their legendary reputation as hypocrites.”
[Box/Pictures on page 27]
CROCODILE OR ALLIGATOR?
What is the difference between a crocodile and an alligator? The most obvious difference is in their teeth. Simply put, when a crocodile has its jaws closed, you can see the enlarged fourth tooth of the lower jaw. In the case of the alligator, however, the upper jaw covers this tooth.
F. W. King photo
[Pictures on page 26]
Look at those teeth!
By courtesy of Koorana Crocodile Farm, Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia
© Adam Britton, http://crocodilian.com
[Picture Credit Line on page 25]
By courtesy of Australian International Public Relations