During the past two weeks I watched all four Jurassic Park movies, so I’m in a bit of a dinosaur mood. Unfortunately, Our Wild World is a blog about extant animals, so dinosaurs are right out. I’ve decided instead to write about a species of crocodile, because they’re basically the next best thing.
The species I’m going to focus on is the saltwater crocodile, because they are super cool. Saltwater crocodiles have a broad range, and are found from eastern India to Indonesia, Australia, and even around some Pacific islands, like Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. As their name implies, saltwater crocs can tolerate high levels of salinity, and are often found in rivers, estuaries and coastal areas. More than any other species of crocodile, saltwater crocodiles are found in the ocean; they often travel long distances in the open ocean and can spend months at sea.
Saltwater crocodiles are big. You definitely don’t want to meet one of them in a murky river. In fact, saltwater crocodiles are the biggest of all crocodiles and are the biggest reptiles in the world. Males can reach lengths of six to seven meters, though females only grow to a paltry three meters. The largest male ever recorded weighed 1,075 kg. Adults are a dark greenish colour, with lighter bellies. Young crocodiles have more exciting colouring, being yellow with stripes and spots on them.
Crocodiles are big (as I mentioned), and they have large, pointy teeth. Saltwater crocodiles have between 64 and 68 teeth, the longest of which can measure up to nine centimetres in length. They use these massive teeth to hunt, feeding on a wide variety of animals such as fish, turtles, snakes, buffalo, birds, wild boars and monkeys. Crocodiles are ambush predators, hiding below the water’s surface with only their backs, nostrils and eyes visible, until an unlucky victim stumbles along.
When a prey animal does happen to wander too close to a saltwater crocodile, the crocodile strikes. They are surprisingly fast when striking from the water, using both feet and their tails to launch themselves at their prey. They can swim in bursts of 24 to 29 km/hr, so you really don’t want to be stuck in the water with a saltwater crocodile.
Once the crocodiles have an animal in their strong jaws, it is either swallowed whole, or, if it is too large, the crocs drag their prey underwater and drown it. Crocodile teeth are not made for shearing, so crocodiles rip chunks of meat off their prey by rolling in the water while gripping the prey to twist off pieces of flesh, or by jerking their heads to remove hunks of tasty meat.
If you do end up getting bitten by a saltwater crocodile, good luck getting away; saltwater crocodiles have the highest bite force of any animal, measuring a maximum of 16,414 N (which I’m guessing is a lot). Part of the bite strength of saltwater crocodiles comes from the design of their jaw muscles; they can clamp down extremely hard, but have weak muscles when it comes to opening their jaws. Apparently a few layers of duct tape is sufficient to hold a crocodile’s mouth shut. The tricky part, of course, is getting the duct tape on the crocodile in the first place.
Saltwater crocodiles breed during the wet season, from September to October. Though they often live in saltwater, saltwater crocodiles move to fresh water to breed. Males are very territorial in general, but are especially aggressive during the breeding season, chasing away any other males that encroach on their territory.
Female saltwater crocodiles lay between 40 and 90 eggs in mounds placed on river banks and shores. The eggs are laid raised from the ground, to prevent them from being washed away during floods. The eggs hatch after around three months, at which point calls from the young prompt the mother to help unearth the eggs. She then carries the hatchlings in her mouth to the water, and stays with her brood for a few months. Very few survive to adulthood, and those that do disperse at eight months of age. Sexual maturity is reached when crocodiles are 10 to 16 years old, and these remarkable reptiles can live to be over 70 years of age.
Because saltwater crocodiles are highly valued for their meat, eggs, and skin, this species was once hunted extensively. They have since come under protection in most of their range, and have made great recoveries. Thankfully they are not currently endangered or threatened, but habitat destruction is a concern for these magnificent beasts.
I’d like to say a few last things about the saltwater crocodile. First, they are big, with large teeth, and are territorial and aggressive. So yes, they can and do eat people who come into their waters, so watch out. And secondly, even though these guys are giant man-eaters, you shouldn’t hate them, because not only are they very cool, they are also supposed to be very intelligent. They have extensive means of communication, can learn tasks quite quickly, and track the migratory patterns of their prey. So don’t hate saltwater crocodiles, and definitely don’t swim with them.