Thursday, July 6, 2017

Crocodiles Revisited

Michael - Thursday

Nile crocodile

Caro’s post last week about her encounter with a Scottish crocodile made me think about what successful animals the crocodiles and alligators are. They’ve been around a long time.  The fossil record shows that they've been around in a form pretty similar to the modern day version since the time of the dinosaurs.  The Nile crocodile covers most of Africa outside the deserts.  Other species are found in many parts of Asia, the Americas, and Australia. Obviously they are doing something right.

Chinese alligator. Look no teeth. Visible. 
They are pretty adaptable too. Australia boasts a small (and so rather endearing) fresh water variety, but also a ferocious salt water version, which is found all the way around the tropical coast. The US, of course, has very impressive alligators. If you're wondering about the difference between alligators and crocodiles, the answer is mainly the shape of the snout, and the setting of the teeth. The upper and lower jaws of a crocodile are the same width, and the teeth in the lower jaw fall along the edge or outside the upper jaw when the mouth is closed, so all teeth are visible. On the other hand, an alligator has small depressions in the upper jaw, into which the lower teeth fit, so you don’t see them when the mouth is closed. This interesting fact about the teeth will make little difference if it happens to have your arm between its jaws.
This is a fake, of course. I hope...

From the deck overlooking the river of our bungalow in the Olifants River Game Reserve, one can usually spot a number of crocodiles engaged in their daily and nightly activities.  Sometimes they are impressively out of the water sunning themselves and showing off up to fifteen feet from toothful mouth to powerful tail.  Sometimes all you see is a ripple as the croc moves smoothly under the water going about its business.  

Crocodiles have what you might call a bit part in our second Detective Kubu novel, so I have a soft spot for them.  Cute isn’t usually a word applied to crocodiles, but the babies are only a few inches in length and look almost cuddly.  However, they come ready fitted with tiny but needle teeth.  More to the point, the mother may be nearby.  She quite often keeps an eye on them for a while.  Probably she has other crocodiles in mind – cannibalism is no problem for them - but I don’t recommend reaching into the water to pick up one of the babies.

People seem to be fascinated by the crocodile the way we are simultaneously attracted and repelled by all the large predators i.e. anything that might (and sometimes does) eat humans.  There are all the standard trivia questions along the lines of “what animal is responsible for the most human deaths in Africa?”  (The answer, of course, is usually followed by an argument about whether it's fair to call a mosquito an animal; if not the hippo wins hands down.)  Anyway, there’s no doubt that large crocodiles are merciless predators and that they have no qualms about eating humans.  The manager of our game reserve believes he lost one of his dogs to a croc and nearly lost the other.  He was resting in the bush one day when he noticed the dog was not with him.  Something made him nervous and, looking around, he discovered that the dog was drinking at the river.  At the same time he noticed ripples moving towards the bank.  Crocodiles are reputed to be attracted to animal lapping sounds transmitted through the water.  He yelled but the dog went on drinking.  He ran down the bank and grabbed the animal in time, and the ripples subsided.

Then, of course, there’s the story of crocodile tears.  Going back to tales from the fourteenth century, it was ‘well known’ that crocodiles wept while they viciously devoured their prey.  So it became a saying for an insincere show of emotion.  Later this ‘fact’ was debunked on the basis that crocodiles can’t produce tears.  But that’s wrong, too.  They have tear ducts, as we do, to lubricate their eyes.  They don’t cry though.  What they feel in the way of emotions is another matter altogether. I wouldn’t put any money on pity being one of them.

No swimming in the Olifants river, no matter how hot it gets in summer. 

Murder Is Everywhere Author Recognitions and Events


Murder in Saint Germain, Aimée Leduc’s next investigation, launched June 6.


              My next Hiro Hattori mystery, Betrayal at Iga, releases on July 11 from Seventh Street Books. 

          The next Detective Kubu my stery, Dying to Live, releases in the UK on July 12 from Orenda books.


  1. Where do humans fall on the range of "animals that cause the most human deaths in Africa"???

    As for not swimming with crocodiles, I saw a video a year or two (60 Minutes, maybe?) about researches who actually go scuba diving with crocodiles, filming them resting on the bottom of the river under logs and rocky overhangs and such. Yeesh.

    Aha. On YouTube:
    A fun watch if you haven't seen it.

    1. Thanks, EvKa. Of course humans leave the others for dead, to coin a phrase.
      I'll certainly watch the video with great interest, but I think this comes under the heading of things not to try yourself at home!

  2. I do like crocs and alligators, in the same way I like sharks. As we disappear up our own backsides with pension funds and obesity, they will just doing what they are doing - and not changing that for anybody. More power to them I say. But not near my dog.

  3. Michael, the crocs have their niche in nature I guess. I have never seen them do anything but lie in the shallow water, perfectly still. But ever since I saw that poor zebra die after having been bitten while crossing the river in the great migration, I can't think of them as anything but merciless.

    1. AmA: While I don't enjoy seeing any animal suffer, I can occasionally "step back" and see things from a "larger perspective." A few years ago I was watching a 'nature' program (Earth? Not sure, but one of those 6-part hi-def productions), and in this one segment, they were describing a large bay somewhere where walruses (some type of sea lion) would gather on the beaches to sun themselves (and breed, no doubt). But the opening from the bay into the ocean was very narrow, and the orca pods would gather there, and the walruses had to "run the gauntlet" to get out to sea to feed and travel elsewhere. It was a very dangerous passage (much like the zebra, etc, and the crocodiles). But as I was watching it, I had this moment of ...great clarity (for lack of a better description... it was like I floated away to a much greater distance) and I realized that it was a great dance, over eons, between the orca and the sea lions/walruses, each pushing the other's evolution onward. Yes, at great cost to individual creatures, but for a moment, I was seeing it from the species level, and from tens of thousands of years perspective.

      I still have a hard time watching predators bringing down prey, though. :-)

  4. I think mosquitos probably kill more people in Africa than anything else, including humans.

  5. A truly disarming article, Michael, which removes any sense of guilt I might have at running out to buy a pair of crocodile boots...with mosquito inlays.