The Gavial or Gharial

Fish-eating Crocodile of the Indian Subcontinent

There are some bizarre animals in the world. The uakari and bleeding heart monkeys are two of these. In the bird world too, there is a variety of very strange creatures. The helmeted hornbill, great frigate bird and hoatzin are worthy examples of the group.

The gavial (Gavialis gangeticus) is also strange-looking with the males having a big bulbous growth on the end of the nose. It belongs to the crocodile family and is native to the Indian subcontinent. It is also known as the gharial and fish-eating crocodile. There are three crocodile species native to India. The others are the mugger and the saltwater crocodiles.

Gavials are now found in only 2% of their former range. They were once prevalent in all major rivers of the Indian subcontinent.

Gavial 2Credit: Wikimedia

They are typically found in flowing rivers with high sand banks, deep pools and good fish stocks. Nesting takes place on exposed sand banks.

Gavials average 11 to 15 feet in length. When first hatched, the length is about 15 inches. By 18 months of age, the young animals are a metre long. They weigh between 350 and 400 pounds. The females are slightly shorter and lighter than the males. In the water, the gavial has great manoeuvrability due to the tail which is well-developed and flattened laterally. The rear feet are webbed. The snout is long and narrow. As the animal grows, the snout appears shorter and thicker. Males have a bulbous growth on the end of the snout. This is called the ghara and comes from an Indian word meaning 'mud pot'. This makes it the only crocodile species which has visible differences between the sexes.

GavialCredit: Wikimedia

When the male hisses through the bulbous growth, the sound is modified and amplified. On a still day, the sound carries for almost a kilometre. The razor-sharp teeth interlock. There is a strong crest on the outer edges of the feet, legs and forearms. Adults are a dark olive in colour while youngsters are pale olive with dark spots or banding.

The gavial is not able to walk on land but 'belly-slides' by pushing the body forward. In the water, they may use their bodies to hold fish against a sand bank while they eat at leisure.

Youngsters feed on small frogs, insects and larvae. Adults are mostly fish-eaters. They also eat snakes, frogs, shrimps and crabs. Some have been known to scavenge dead animals. The long snouts have little resistance in the water and sweeping movements are made to snap up fish. Struggling, slippery fish are easily held by the dozens of needle-sharp teeth.

Gavials live in groups of one male to four to six females. Mating takes place from November through to January. In March, April and May, the eggs are laid. These weigh an average of six ounces. Thirty to fifty eggs are placed in a hole dug by the female. She then covers the eggs. After about 90 days they hatch. The female guards the nesting area and the young in the water for a few days while they learn to hunt food for themselves.

Although large, the thin, fragile jaws are useless when dealing with large animals. The drastic decline in numbers is due to over-hunting, egg collection for food, killing for bush medicine. Fishermen kill them and many are trapped in gill nets. Their riverine habitat is fast disappearing with the construction of dams, canals, embankments and sand-mining.

The gavial is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). Some are being bred in captivity. Several releases have been made into the wild but these have not always been successful.