Big Salties

Crocodiles are descended from dinosaurs, and the saltwater crocodiles are the largest reptiles on earth. Most known habitats of the "salties" (common name for the Australian saltwater crocodile) are sea coasts and river estuaries around Northern Australia, Eastern India and Southeast Asia. The only predator they have is man.

I was in Australia back in 1999 and I visited Darwin which is a gateway city to the Northern Territories. It is the home of Northern Territories University (where one of my daughters was attending part of her junior year in college), and the home of Crocodylus Park - an unequalled public education forum, wildlife research and education center, and just plain awesome place to check out crocodiles. I was already used to seeing warning signs on roads for kangaroo crossings (having visited Ayers Rock and Alice Springs) but the crocodile warnings blew me away. Darwin really was an outpost of sorts, and I was so very curious about crocodiles that I had a tour at Crocodylus Park.

Giant Crocs at Crocodylus Park

Actually, the crocodile information and crocodile facts I gathered at the park have only given me a thirst to learn more about these really scary reptiles. Remember, these are cunning killers weighing from 2200 pounds on up, and they kill by a mere snap of the jaw. Seeing them shoot up out of water to eat a smaller animal dangled from a rope from one of the park feeders was shocking. They are incredibly fast, and they have webbed feet for land, so beware, they can move. This is deceptive because they can lurk, and can stay still for hours. Their brownish, green, gray camouflage helps them to blend in the murky waters.

What do crocodiles eat? The predators eat anything they can get their jaws on. The poor victim has little if any warning as the croc hangs out silently below the water surface. It explodes from the surface and drags the prey under water to drown it. Salties are also excellent swimmers, and they have been seen far out at sea. If they are hungry and a shark is out there, they will swim out to eat it. The males are larger than the females. Even though they are fierce ambush predators they have a soft spot for their young. They are a rarity among reptiles to care for their eggs, and their young after they hatch.

Despite the soft spot, they are still impressive because of their savage bite and monster proportions. Even baby crocodiles are capable of severing a finger. I really had to get my courage up to hold a baby croc at the park. It's jaw was banded shut, but still, I had seen how stealthy the creatures can be. I had also read local accounts of saltwater crocodile attacks which are fairly common in Northern Australia. I had been in Alice Springs before I got to Darwin and I recall reading about an attack, and really realizing that it wasn't sensational media. Crocodiles are so otherworldly that I still think of them as aliens, true aliens from another world, another planet.


crocsCredit: footloose

Crocodile Heart
Mammals and birds have 4 chambered hearts, and reptiles have 3. Of course the alien crocodiles have 4 chambered hearts with 2 atria and 2 separate ventricle that have a complete partition between the right and left ventricle (different from mammals and birds). This is why they can hang around underwater so long, and it allows for low oxygen (apnea) conditions. That is why they can be so very lethargic and fake like they are dead, not moving for hours at a time. The difference in their 4 chambered hearts and ours is that the right ventricle pumps blood into 2 separate vessels. Thus they can effectively switch between normal and low oxygen situations by closing the pulmonary circulation. Now, that's science! It's also very strange, and why can these reptiles do this? Are they farther advanced than others? That is an evolutionary question that scientists ponder.

Even J.K. Rowling wrote a bit about crocodile hearts. A crocodile heart is a potion ingredient with an unknown purpose. Ron Weasley threw one of these at Draco Malfoy, earning himself a 50 point deduction from Professor Snape.

Near Extinction
Crocodylus porosus is the scientific name for the saltwater crocodiles. It means pored crocodile. The external scale or "scute" is all over crocs but the salties have fewer on their underside so their hide is more highly valued. The skin is unique, durable and each has a different pattern (like snowflakes). Crocodile skin products are quite popular and the crocodile killers have succeeded in the calling of the extinction scare for these dangerous beings. Some common accessories are; mens and womens wallets, handbags, belts, briefcases, and address books.

In Australia the hunting stopped in the 1970's due to the intervention of the government. The crocs were almost driven to extinction so now they are a protected species. An interesting note about this is that there is a whole new generation of salties that have survived with no fear of being hunted by humans. I'm not sure I like that. It  seems that humans have had a love-hate relationship with crocodiles even in ancient times.

Crocodile Myth
Sobek was an ancient Egyptian deity, the God of the Nile. He was depicted as a man with a crocodile head, and considered quite fierce. Temples were built in the places near where crocodiles lived. Some temples had pools and kept crocodiles in them. They were well fed, some became tame, and when they died they were mummified.

An important archaeological site, Madinet Madi, in Egypt, contains ruins of the only Middle Kingdom temple in Egypt. It was dedicated to Sobek and other deities. Preserved crocodile eggs have been discovered. The association with the present love-hate relationship with crocs is this. The ones found at Madinet Madi were not pampered and considered sacred, they were bred to be killed and embalmed and sold to tourists. A visitor center is open and receiving tourists, however embalmed crocodiles may not be available.