Crocodilians of all types are fearsome beasts, but sadly they have been underrepresented in this blog. The only species I’ve written about has been the spectacled caiman. Today I want to write about one of the strangest looking crocodilians, the gharial.
The tale of the gharial is a sad one. The species used to occupy the majority of river systems in India, but today is reduced less than two percent of its original range. Their preferred habitat is quick-flowing, freshwater rivers. Groups usually are found at river bends, where the water deepens and slows down.
I mentioned that gharials are strange looking, and this mainly has to do with the crocodilians’ snouts. These are very long and thin, and contain over one hundred sharp teeth. Male gharials look even funnier than females, thanks to the rounded protrusion on the tip of their snouts. This resembles a ghara, a Indian earthenware pot, which is how the species gets its common name. Gharials are some of the longest crocodilians, and can reach sizes of 6.25 m, but most are between 3.5 to 4.5 m.
Gharials’ silly snouts are designed to make these crocodilians expert fish catchers. Their long, thin shape decreases water resistance, allowing gharials to snap quickly at fish underwater. The multitudes of teeth make excellent fish-grippers. The rest of gharials’ bodies are also designed for water; their webbed feet and laterally flattened tails make them extremely good swimmers. In fact, gharials are the most aquatic of all the crocodilians and are quite clumsy on land.
The ‘ghara’ on male gharials’ noses is primarily used in mating. They make fun buzzing noises with the ghara during courtship, as well as hissing and slapping the water with their jaws. When a female gharial is pleased with a male’s performance, the two will rub each other with their snouts, and when she is ready to mate she will lift her head in the air.
Female gharials lay up to 100 eggs in holes dug into sand banks. These hatch in 60 to 80 days. During this time, females will come to the nest at night to guard it. When the eggs start hatching, females will help dig out the nest, and will continue to protect them for the next few weeks. Females reach sexual maturity much earlier than males, at eight years of age, while male have to wait until they are about fifteen years old.
The drastic decline of the gharial population has been the result of overhunting, for meat, eggs, as well as the medicinal properties gharas are believed to have. Further declines have occurred due to habitat loss. Gharials are now listed as critically endangered, and there are believed to be less than 200 adults in the wild today. Though conservation efforts are underway, they have largely been unsuccessful, but hopefully we can save these strange crocodilians.