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Reptiles III: Crocodilians

Of all reptiles, the most feared and perhaps least well known are the crocodilians, which includes 22 species of crocodiles, alligators, caimans and gharials. I knew almost nothing about them, except how fearsome they look—especially when you’re sitting in a canoe and see one on the shore (that happened for me in Florida a few years ago). I learned a lot of fascinating things about these creatures of God.

They’ve been around about 200 million years. They, like the turtles, were contemporaries of the dinosaurs. As primitive as they look, they are actually the most advanced of all reptiles, and are in fact more closely related to birds than to lizards. They have a more efficient circulatory system; they are more intelligent; and they are way more attentive of their young.

Crocodilians inhabit North America, Central America, South America, China and Southeast Asia, Africa, Australia, India, Pakistan and many Pacific Islands. The Indopacific Crocodile is the largest reptile living. It reaches 23 feet or more, weighing maybe a ton. Even the smallest croc, the dwarf crocodile of Africa, is about 6 feet long.

There’s a lot that’s interesting about the way they care for their young. The female makes a nest, lays eggs—it varies from species to species, but anywhere from 20 to 80 eggs—and covers them with mud and plant material. Then, unlike other reptiles, she stays close by. In some species even the male stays around for protection. When the young crocs are ready to hatch they begin to make noise inside the eggs. She will dig into the nest and take the eggs one by one in her mouth. She rolls them gently back and forth until the shell cracks. She then takes the tiny crocs down to the water—she can carry up to 20 at a time in her huge mouth. They will then stay close together for weeks or months. Some even remain in family groups for years.

Despite all this attention and care, mortality rates are as high as 90% in the first year. Many things happen. The female doesn’t sit on the nest like birds so climatic conditions will affect the eggs. If it’s too cool, too wet, or too hot, the eggs will not develop. In many cases, the whole clutch will perish. Predators hang around even though the female is nearby, because croc eggs are a prime source of food for so many other animals. Many female crocs fast while standing guard but they do need water. Predators wait for her to go get a drink. Lizards, birds, raccoons, foxes and monkeys all raid the nests. If the eggs survive, the hatchlings face a lot of dangers, as the tiny crocs also are food for all kinds of predators—frogs, snakes and turtles, herons, raccoons and other mammals. Interestingly, if the croc survives to adulthood, all these predators will become his prey.

53:45 He is the One who created the two kinds, male and female.
75:39 He made it into male or female.

I think the most interesting thing about crocodilian offspring is that it is truly God who decides the male and female. We know that’s true for everything, but in this case, the sex of the offspring is determined by temperature, not by chromosomes. This is called temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD), and it’s true of some turtles and lizards as well. When the egg is laid, its sex has not been decided. Temperatures during the first half of incubation will determine the sex of each individual. In the American alligator, high temperature creates males, low temperature makes females, but in the crocodile high and low temperatures create females, only intermediate temperature makes males. A small difference in temperature—1 or 2 degrees—makes a marked difference in sex ratio. Within a nest, all may be the same sex or the temperature may vary enough to have all females in the lower layer of eggs and all males above or vice versa. In American alligators, those who build their nests in cool marshes will have all females; those who nest in warm mounds will have all males. Muggers of India nest at different times throughout the season, in fact a single female may nest twice. Those that nest early in the season will produce mostly females; those who nest later when the soil temperature has risen will have mostly males. I think this is fascinating. God is the One who makes each of these creatures into male or female.

Crocodilians are well-adapted as predators. When in the water, they swim casually using a gentle s motion of their tail to propel them. They stay almost completely submerged with only nostrils and eyes above the water, looking like a small log. They may smell prey on shore from a great distance and swim closer, with a final lunge that may carry the croc several times its own length up onto the beach. If it gets a hold of any part of the animal, it will win. It will pull the victim into the water where it drowns. If it doesn’t get a hold, it may knock the animal over with several blows of its head. In addition, crocs will sneak up on a wading bird and as it takes off, the croc can leap out of the water almost vertically. And if large game isn’t available, the croc will use its tail to sweep schools of fish toward its mouth and gobble up as many as possible.

As to diet, one book said adults will eat “anything they want.” They regularly take down mammals that come to drink at the water’s edge, like gazelle, even zebras and wildebeest. They can crush the strong bony shells of turtles. They may try to take a hippo or elephant calf but the mother will be protective and have been known to crush crocs. The Nile crocodile has a reputation as the number one killer of beast and humans on the African continent. People go to the river to wash themselves and their clothes, to get water, to fish, or to travel in canoes and rafts. The crocodile may reach 20 feet and weigh 2200 pounds. It lies motionless in the water and it’s almost never seen until the attack occurs. This is simply part of life in these areas. The crocodile has been around much longer than man, and we are encroaching on its turf. We don’t stand a chance against such an ancient and primitive predator.

Had I known all this, I might not have been so blasé in my encounter with the alligator in Florida. My sister and I were canoeing and we knew that alligators were present. The canoe rental place had basically said not to worry, just keep paddling. We heard a huge sound and both of us saw the alligator at the same time. Fortunately it was at least 50 from us, on shore, but looking our way. Everything stopped, including my heart. It was a typical American alligator, about 8 or 9 feet long, and I felt incredibly small and insignificant. Slowly we started to breath again and we kept paddling. When we came back the alligator was gone.

This was a great gift. The opportunity to see one of God’s amazing creatures in its natural habitat. I’m thankful that I don’t live where I have to wash my clothes in the same river where crocodiles lie in wait, but I’m also thankful for the opportunity to see one and know a little bit of that fear and awe.

And GOD created every living creature from water. Some of them walk on their bellies, some walk on two legs, and some walk on four. GOD creates whatever He wills. GOD is Omnipotent. (24:45)

Reptiles are awesome creatures, nearly 6000 different species, so many variations. They walk on their bellies, they walk on two legs, they walk on four. They are part of God’s intricate interwoven plan on this earth. We like them or we fear them, but we need to appreciate them. For their part, they just want to be left alone, in their submission to God. Unlike dogs and cats, they don’t want to bond with us or serve us; they just want to be allowed to do their own thing. A naturalist, Henry Beston, wrote in The Outermost House: “For the animal shall not be measured by man ... They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.” How true, for God says in 6:38 All the creatures on earth and all the birds that fly with wings are communities like you. We did not leave anything out of this book. To their Lord, all these creatures will be summoned.


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