Can You Smile at a Crocodile?
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN INDIA
WOULD you ever think of smiling at a crocodile? In a musical version of the children’s story Peter Pan, the character Captain Hook gives his reason for advising, “Never smile at a crocodile.” The crocodile is, he says, “imagining how well you’d fit within his skin”!
Although it is true that among the many types of crocodiles worldwide, there are some that attack humans, “this happens so infrequently . . . that crocodiles cannot be generally regarded as maneaters.” (Encyclopædia Britannica) Viewed by some people as ugly, frightening creatures, crocodiles are fascinating to others. Let us take a look at the three species indigenous to India—the saltwater crocodile, the mugger, and the gavial.
The Big “Salty”
Saltwater, or estuarine, crocodiles—the biggest reptiles on earth—can grow to a length of 23 feet [7 m] or more and weigh up to 2,000 pounds [1,000 kg]. Living exclusively in salt water, they are found in river estuaries, seas, and mangrove swamps along the coasts from India to northern Australia. Carnivorous, they eat rats, frogs, fish, snakes, crabs, turtles, and deer—in small quantities; large males average only 18 to 24 ounces [500-700 g] of food a day. An easygoing life-style of basking in the sun or floating in the water and an efficient digestive system keep their energy requirements low. A big “salty” may occasionally attack an unwary human. Salties swim by moving their tail from side to side, with their body submerged except for nostrils and eyes, and they walk on their short legs. They can leap up to catch food and are known to gallop after prey at times. Like all other crocodiles, their senses of smell, sight, and hearing are good. The male salty is fiercely territorial during the mating season, and the female is equally fierce when guarding her eggs.
The female crocodile builds a nest near the water, usually a mound of decaying vegetation and mud. She lays up to 100 oval, hard-shelled eggs, covers them, and guards them from predators. Then, she splashes water onto the nest to promote the decay of the covering vegetation, thus generating heat to incubate the eggs.
Now something fascinating takes place. The temperature at which each egg is incubated determines the gender of the hatchling. Imagine that! When the temperature ranges between 82 and 88 degrees Fahrenheit [28 and 31°C], females are produced in about 100 days; whereas, when the temperature is 90.5 degrees Fahrenheit [32.5°C], males hatch within 64 days. Eggs incubated between 90.5 degrees Fahrenheit [32.5°C] and 91 degrees Fahrenheit [33°C] can produce either gender. A nest built with one side at the water’s edge and the other side facing the hot sun could produce males from the warm side and females from the cooler side.
When the mother hears chirping sounds, she removes the nest covering, sometimes breaking the eggs if the hatchlings have not already done so with their specially provided shell-breaking tooth. She lifts them very gently in her great jaws and carries them in a pouch under her tongue to the water’s edge. They are independent at birth and immediately forage for insects, frogs, and small fish. Some protective mothers, however, stay close for several months, creating nursery areas in the swamps, where father can share in baby-sitting and protecting the young.
The Mugger and the Long-Nose Gavial
The mugger, or marsh crocodile, and the gavial belong exclusively to the Indian subcontinent. About 13 feet [4 m] long, the mugger—found in freshwater marshes, lakes, and rivers throughout India—is much smaller than the saltwater crocodile. It catches small animals in its powerful jaws, drowns them, and swings them around to break off eatable chunks of flesh.
How do muggers meet to mate? When searching for a mate, the male slaps his jaws on the water and growls. Later he will share nest-guarding duties with the female, help the hatchlings out of their eggs, and stay with them for some time.
The rare gavial, not a true crocodile, is unique in several ways. It is easily recognizable by its very long, narrow jaws, ideal for catching fish—its main food. Although equaling the saltwater crocodile in length, the gavial is not known for attacking humans. Its smooth, streamlined body makes for speedy movement in the deep, fast-flowing rivers of northern India. The male gavial grows a bulbous knob at the tip of its muzzle during the reproductive period. This amplifies its normal hissing sound into a loud buzz to attract females.
Their Place in the Ecosystem
How important are crocodiles to our environment? They are scavengers, clearing the rivers and lakes, as well as nearby land areas, of dead fish and animals. This helps keep the water system clean. As predators, they target weak, injured, and sickly creatures. They eat fish, such as the destructive catfish, which feed on carp and tilapia, major commercial catches for human consumption.
The Fight for Survival—Not Crocodile Tears
Have you heard it said that someone was shedding crocodile tears? That means the tears and sadness were not genuine or sincere. Actually, a crocodile sheds tears to rid its body of excess salt. However, in the early 1970’s, perhaps tears could have been shed sincerely for the crocodile. Only a few thousand crocodiles remained in India, about 10 percent of their former numbers. Why? As humans encroached on their habitat, crocodiles were killed because they were considered a threat to young and weak domestic animals. Many people found the meat and the eggs of the crocodile delectable. Crocodile musk glands were used to make perfume. Added to this, dam building and water pollution diminished the crocodile population. But perhaps what brought them to the brink of extinction was the demand for their skin. Shoes, handbags, luggage, belts, and other items made from crocodile skin are beautiful, durable, and very desirable. These threats remain, but conservation measures have proved very successful!—See the box below.
Remember to Smile!
Now that you have become better acquainted with some members of the crocodile family, how do you feel about them? We hope that any negative views have given way to interest. Worldwide, many animal lovers look forward to the time when there will be no need to fear even the huge salty. When the Creator of reptiles renews the earth, we will be able to smile at all the crocodiles.—Isaiah 11:8, 9.
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The Madras Crocodile Bank
In 1972 crocodile conservation in the Madras Snake Park began after a survey showed that very few crocodiles remained in the wild in some parts of Asia. The Madras Crocodile Bank is the oldest and largest of the more than 30 reptile centers in India. It was set up in 1976 by herpetologist Romulus Whitaker. Spread over eight and a half acres [3.5 ha] on the Coromandel Coast, it boasts 150 species of trees, which attract beautiful birds and insects.
Crocodiles and gavials are bred in captivity and then released into swamps and rivers, or they are passed on to other breeding and research centers. The bank has a nursery where baby crocodiles, up to 2,500 at a time, are kept in ponds and fed chopped fish provided daily by local fishermen. Nets over the pens keep marauding birds from stealing the fish or the weak baby reptiles. As the youngsters grow, they are transferred to larger pools, where their diet is whole fish until they are about three years old and between four and five feet [1.25-1.5 m] long. Then they are fed beef waste from a large meat-packing company. The bank originally bred just the 3 types of crocodiles indigenous to India, but it now has 7 more species and plans eventually to stock all species known worldwide. Commercial farming of the reptiles for their skins and their meat has been debated. Whitaker told Awake! that the reptiles’ meat is tasty and low in cholesterol. Successful conservation brought these great creatures from the brink of extinction to the threshold of surplus. The Madras Crocodile Bank, a popular tourist draw, also aims at eradicating misconceptions about crocodiles and enhancing their public image.
Romulus Whitaker, Madras Crocodile Bank
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A big “salty”
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A female saltwater crocodile carries her hatchling in her jaws
© Adam Britton, http://crocodilian.com
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© E. Hanumantha Rao/Photo Researchers, Inc.
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