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African Crocodile

The African crocodile is recognisable by its narrow snout. It has three or four rows of protective scales on the back of its neck, which merge with the scales on its back, other members of the Crocodylus genus have only two rows of scales. The fourth tooth of the African crocodile’s lower jaw sits outside the crocodile’s lips even when its mouth is closed.

Crocodiles are found primarily in freshwater rivers that have dense vegetation cover. They can also be found in large lakes. Crocodiles are most at home in the water, but are able to travel on land.

Crocodiles are carnivores. They use their sharp teeth for catching and holding their prey. Their diet is thought to consist primarily of fish and small aquatic invertebrates. Young crocodiles feed on worms and insects. While adults eat frogs, tadpoles, and opportunistically on larger prey if it becomes available including humans.

The African crocodile is generally not found in groups, except during the onset of the breeding season. At the onset of the rainy season female crocodiles construct nests out of plant matter on the banks of rivers, although breeding occurs year-round. Female African crocodiles lay between 13 to 27 eggs about a week after they have finished building their nests.

The female remains close to the nest for the 110 day incubation period, but does not defend it quite as ferociously as many other species of crocodile. Once the eggs begin to hatch, and the hatchlings emit their characteristic chirping, the female breaks open the nest to assist in the hatching process. Predators of the hatchlings include the soft-shelled turtle, but most young African crocodiles survive to maturity.

Although the African crocodile does not have many natural predators, the crocodile population is declining due to over-hunting by man. Areas where the crocodile population is severely depleted, if not entirely wiped out include Angola, Chad, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria, Senegal, Zambia, Congo and Togo. The largest population stronghold exists in Gabon. Habitat destruction has also contributed to the population depletion.

Poorly-enforced protection exists for the remaining populations, although some countries allow regulated hunting. Before significant action can be taken in conserving the crocodile population, studies on ecology, population dynamics and status need to be undertaken, which is difficult in areas subject to political instability.

Primarily found in freshwater swamps and marshes, but also in rivers, lakes and smaller bodies of water. They can tolerate a reasonable degree of salinity for short periods of time, being occasionally found in brackish water around mangrove swamps, although they lack the buccal salt-secreting glands present in crocodiles. Construction of burrows is well documented in this species. The burrows are used for shelter and hibernation when the seasonal temperatures fall. Even outside their burrows, they can tolerate limited periods of freezing conditions. They modify their habitat through the creation of 'alligator holes', which provide a refuge for other animals during dry periods. These are excavated using both snout and tail. Once these dry out, however, the alligator crosses land in order to find another body of water. Alligators near human habitation are often seen crossing roads, entering suburbs and finding shelter in swimming pools during the drier months.

Adults males typically reach approximately 13 to 14.7 feet, although there are several unconfirmed reports of larger approximately 16.4 feet. 19.8 feet is the largest "reported", though there are doubts over its veracity, having been found or killed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Such sizes seem unlikely for this species. Females reach lengths of just under 9.8 feet. The snout is characteristically broad, although this varies slightly between populations. Captive animals have been shown to grow significantly broader jaws compared with wild alligators, mainly due to differences in diet. When the mouth is closed, the edge of the upper jaw overlaps teeth in the lower jaw, which therefore fit into depressions in the upper jaw. This is unlike Crocodylus and Gavialis in which the lower teeth fit into depressions on the outside of the upper jaw. A bony nasal bridge is present, similar to that seen in the spectacled caiman but not as pronounced. Juveniles are essentially miniature versions of their parents, although they possess bright yellow cross-bands on a black background - disruptive camouflage. More western populations are reported to have white speckling around the jaws, with paler colouration on their bodies and tails. In all individuals, older alligators gradually lose the yellow banding and turn olive brown and black, although areas around the jaws and on the neck and belly are creamy white. The ventral surface is pale, but most scales especially nearer the tail possess significant amounts of black. Bony plates are present in the belly scales of all American alligators, although the extent varies between populations and the skin is considered quite valuable. The colour of the eyes is similar to many other crocodilians, being generally olive green but variable. Wild adult populations have been observed to fall into two general forms: those which are long and thin, and those which are short and stocky. Variation in growth rate, diet, climate and other factors are likely responsible for these differences.

Juveniles eat a wide variety of small invertebrates, particularly insects, and small fish and frogs. As they grow larger, their dietary range increases to include consequently large prey. Eventually, large adults can tackle nearly all aquatic and terrestrial prey that comes within range, although mostly this includes fish, turtles, relatively small mammals, birds and reptiles including small alligators. Alligators are, like all crocodilians, opportunistic feeders and will take carrion if it becomes available and they are sufficiently hungry. They may also expand their choice of prey to include small dogs and other pets. Alligators have been known in rare instances to attack children and even occasionally adults, usually because they mistake the human for much smaller prey, or they are provoked. In some areas, alligators are fed by humans, which is extremely dangerous and encourages alligators to approach humans aggressively expecting food. When left alone, alligators will stay away from humans and pose little threat. Feeding activity is governed by water temperature, with foraging activity ceasing if the temperature drops below 20 to 23°C (68 to 73°F).

Females reach sexual maturity at an average of 5.9 feet. The courtship rituals, which occur when the temperatures rise in spring, this varies geographically - it is earlier further south, but the most northerly populations may not breed, have been well-studied. Both sexes communicate using aural, visual, tactile and olfactory cues. The vibrations from low-frequency bellowing travel considerable distances in water, advertising an individual's presence. The act of rapidly swinging the head down to make contact with the water surface, head-slapping, transmits both aural and visual messages. Complex body postures communicate additional information, which is reinforced with odour from paired musk glands everted from under the chin and from the cloaca. Near the end of courtship, both animals will engage in a bout of snout and back rubbing. Overall, this courtship can last for several hours, and is thought to help synchronise both spermatogenesis, sperm production, and ovulation, release of eggs from the ovaries.

A mound nest of vegetation and often mud is constructed at the start of the summer, when it is both damp and warm. Nests are typically situated on banks or mats of vegetation, and one of their functions is to elevate the eggs from the water level, to reduce the chance of flooding. Flooding will kill most eggs within 12 hours of submergence. The exact location of the nest depends upon a number of factors, as chosen by the female. These are often the same sites each year, and may be close to an 'alligator hole' which was constructed by the female. Using mainly her back legs, the female excavates a conical depression in the top of her completed mound, and lays between 20 and 50 eggs inside. She subsequently covers the hole with more vegetation, scooped up using her front and back legs. Occasionally, before the female begins to lay her eggs, she will abandon the site for reasons unknown - perhaps the location was not suitable in terms of its environment, or due to social reasons, but other females have been known to use such "abandoned" nests for their own clutches. The finished nest may rise 3.5 feet and be twice as wide. Females remain near the nest, in nearby water or other shelter, throughout the incubation period which averages 65 days, depending on temperature. If danger threatens, she will rapidly return to the nest to deal with the threat. Once the eggs are ready to hatch, calls from the hatchlings stimulate the mother to open the nest using her front legs and jaws to break away the vegetation. Her presence is usually essential to help break apart the hardened mud and vegetation covering the eggs, although her absence does not always spell disaster. When the eggs are revealed and the hatchlings emerge, she carries between 8 and 10 babies in her mouth down to the water, pulling her tongue down to form a pouch in which they all sit. Once in the water, she opens her jaws and shakes her head gently side to side, encouraging her babies to swim out. Once hatched, juveniles form pods, which may even include individuals from others nests, and remain close to the mother for a variable period of time - typically up to a year, but in some cases two or even three years have been reported. This affords protection in numbers at their most vulnerable life stage, and a swift response from the guardian female if they begin calling as a result of impending danger. Despite this protection, juveniles are regularly threatened by predators such as raccoons, large fish, birds and even other alligators. This cannibalism is normally from large, dominant males, and is not uncommon in many crocodilian species. Members of a pod may be found over-wintering in the same den as the adult female.

American alligators are probably the best studied species of crocodilian, and there is a large amount of literature available on most aspects of its biology, behaviour and ecology. Population surveys are extensive and ongoing, and data are available throughout the alligators' range due to links with management and harvest programs. While populations were severely affected in the early parts of the century, with protection occurring in the early 1960's, the recovery of this species has been remarkable in most areas thanks mainly due to properly controlled and monitored conservation and sustainable use, eg. tourism, harvesting, programs. The belly skin of the alligator produces a generally high-quality leather, and this resulted in considerable hunting pressure earlier in the 20th century, particularly in Louisiana and Florida. Even after hunting was prohibited in Florida, illegal poaching continued into the 1970s. Were it not for additional changes in the law to control the movement of hides, many think extinction may have been possible. Since then, populations have improved considerably, ie. millions, and are now only considered to be threatened in a few areas by habitat degradation, including water management programs.

In some areas, increasing alligator populations cause problems with human populations on the edge of alligator habitat, and 'nuisance alligator' programs are required to deal with them. These involve catching and removing animals which have roamed too far into human habitation, or which pose a potential threat to people. Some animals are relocated, but this has generally been shown to be ineffective as alligators often return to their home range within a matter of days. Most recent "nuisance alligator" programs either sell the animals to a farm, or use their skins to help fund the program. Given the high degree of human-alligator contact, some attacks have been reported, but these are very rarely serious. There have only been a handful of alligator-related fatalities recorded in the USA since the 1950s, and improved education and awareness is the best long-term way to avoid future incidents.

Large-scale captive and wild sustainable harvest programs, eg. over 150 farms, are well established in several states, e.g. Florida, Louisiana, Texas. This involves captive rearing, ranching and direct cropping of wild populations, eggs and adults, but all linked to proper monitoring programs. The difference between the historical hunting that nearly led to extinction and modern harvest programs is simple: today, there are very strict quotas and controls that prevent wild populations from being adversely affected. Alligators have proven themselves to be highly resilient to both natural and induced mortality, and harvest has many indirect conservation benefits not just for alligators but for entire habitats. Cropping is only allowed from certain populations, protecting peripheral populations that are still recovering. Ranching programs usually have to return a high percentage, 17% in Louisiana, of juveniles back into wild populations, although recovery in these areas has now been documented and further reintroduction is likely unnecessary. Alligators have been successfully reintroduced or restocked in several states, e.g. Arkansas, Mississippi. Alligator hunting is allowed in several states under strict quota or licence guidelines. In Florida, the results of harvesting have shown that up to 13% of subadult to adult animals, plus all the eggs from 50% of all located nests, can be safely removed from the alligator population annually without affecting population stability. These kinds of figures are vitally important for proper management programs for alligators and other species.

Several areas of research still require attention, including more work on population dynamics. Much has been learned in the last few years, but management programs rely upon a sound grasp of what populations do in the wild under different circumstances. The state of the wild alligator populations provides ample opportunity for such research to be undertaken. An examination of the effects of cropping and ranching is also possible. Other research taking place involves looking at captive husbandry techniques. These findings have implications for other crocodilian species. Although habitat modification is often to the detriment of crocodilians, proper management can benefit local populations. In Louisiana, weirs and impoundments have been constructed to allow for better water and salinity control of areas of marshland. Increased alligator populations are the result in areas where these controls have been implemented.

Alligators have been shown to be an important part of their ecosystem, and are thus regarded by many as a 'keystone' species. This encompasses many areas from control of prey species to the creation of peat through their nesting activities. Several other species benefit from the presence of alligator nests, not least the Florida Red-bellied turtle which incubates its own eggs there, up to 200, from more than one individual. The creation of 'alligator holes' is of great value not only to the alligators, but to the other species of animals which use them. For these animals, the value of the refuge outweighs any additional risks from their creators. Alligators in some areas are also showing greatly increased levels of mercury, an indicator of the state of the ecosystem. This may have long-term implications for their ability to reproduce, but the effects are still being quantified.

Saltwater Crocodiles

Two types of Crocodiles are found in Australia, the Freshwater Crocodile and the Salt Water Crocodile. The salt water Crocodile is the biggest reptile in the world.

    Salt vs Fresh:
  1. Fresh water crocodiles have a narrower snout
  2. Fresh water crocodiles and are smaller than the "Saltys"
  3. Fresh water crocodiles can only live in fresh or slight salty water, whilst the saltwater crocodile can survive in both types of water
  4. Saltys lay eggs in nests of vegetation whilst freshwater crocs lay their eggs in sand
  5. Fresh water crocs teeth are shaped more like needles for piercing fish
  6. Saltwater Crocs reproduce in the WET season while Freshwater Crocs reproduce in the DRY season
Found along Australia's northern coast and up to 200km inland, from Rockhampton on Queenslands "Capricorn Coast" to Broome in Western Australia.

As the name suggests these crocodiles are mainly found in Estuaries where tidal rivers meet the sea.

This watery habitat is often mangrove lined They can also be found sometimes in the open sea or inland in freshwater swamps and billabongs.

The worlds largest reptile the "Salty" has a broad "stubby" snout with cone shaped teeth. Its average length is 4 meters but males 6 to 7 meters have been reported. Saltwater Crocs have rows of bony scales on their neck and back. Their colouring is mainly greyish brown with brown and yellow sides. Their rear feet are webbed to aid with swimming. It is thought that they live up to 70 to 100 years. Their clear eyelids enable them to see underwater.

The feeding strategy of a salt water crocodiles is to wait close to the water's edge and pounce upon its victim in the blink of an eye. The usual prey of younger crocs is smaller animals such as fishes and crustaceans crabs insects etc. Adults can also attack and eat larger animals by overpowering and then drowning them, the teeth are designed more for holding, eg fish, turtles, birds, turtles, dingoes, wallabies, even domestic cattle and people. After the prey is dead the croc will break the prey up into smaller pieces by violent flicking of the head to snap or break bones or twisting and rolling the body. Larger crocs will also take carrion if hungry.

As already mentioned nesting takes place in the wet season after males fight for the females. The female croc builds a nesting mound of vegetation, mud and soil and lays between 40 and 60 leathery eggs inside the mound. This mound raises the eggs above the water level hopefully saving them from damage. She then guards the nest for 3 months until the young crocs using a special egg tooth on the top of their snout break free from their eggs. Carefully carrying her young in her mouth she takes them to the water. In the wild only about 1% survive to be adult crocodiles.

The temperature at which the egg is kept determines the sex of the baby crocodile. If the egg is kept at 31.6 degrees Celsius it will be male. Hotter or colder it will be a female.

Often you will see a saltwater crocodile gaping its mouth open. This enables the Crocodile to cool down, as a lot of their time is spent thermoregulating, maintaining their body temperature between 30 and 32 degrees Celsius, as Crocs are cold blooded.

Freshwater Crocodile

The Australian freshwater crocodile is a relatively small crocodilian which rarely exceeds 2.5 to 3 m in the wild and takes many years, at least 30 to reach this size. Females general reach a maximum size of 2.0 to 2.1 meters. The shape of the snout is unusually narrow and tapering, lined with numerous sharp teeth. The body colour is light brown with darker bands on the body and tail - these tend to be broken up near the neck. Some individuals possess distinct bands or speckling on the snout. Body scales are relatively large, with wide, closely-knit armoured plates on the back. Rounded, pebbly scales cover the flanks and outsides of the legs.

The shape of the snout, like that of the gharial, suggests a primary adaptation to a fish-based diet, and fish are certainly handled with ease. However, a wide variety of other prey items are often taken - generally invertebrates and small vertebrates, especially when younger. Larger individuals may take terrestrial species. C. johnstoni favours a sit-and-wait hunting strategy, snatching prey up with a lightning-fast sideways movement of the head. It rarely feeds during the dry season because of a lack of prey availability, low temperatures at night and a reduction in available habitat due to drying of pools and rivers.

Males reach sexual maturity around 1.5 m in length, with females being only slightly smaller. Courtship occurs in the early months of the dry season, around May, and nesting generally occurs between July and September. Females dig hole nests in sand embankments, exposed after the wet season water levels fall. Research has found that all females within a particular population usually nest within the same three week period - behaviour described as 'pulse' nesting. They may also nest in groups, with many nests being laid in close proximity, some females even dig up the clutches of other females when nest density becomes very high. Eggs are normally laid at night 6 weeks after mating, at a depth of 12 to 20 cm below the surface - too close to the surface and they risk being overheated from the sun. Incubation temperatures of between 30 and 33 degrees are desirable. Clutch size averages 13 eggs, but can range from 4 to 20. The incubation period is usually between 75 to 85 days, maximum range 65 to 95 days. Studies on temperature effects have shown that eggs incubated at 32°C produce male embryos, whereas those a couple of degrees above and below this produce female embryos - however, greater sexual differentiation seems to occur with fluctuating nest temperatures. Varanus lizards and feral pigs are major predators of eggs during this period, when neither parent guards the nest. Varanids can easily find nests laid within 24 to 48 hours. On average for all nests laid, under one third of the eggs survive to hatching. The female parents return at the end of the incubation period and wait for the neonates to begin calling. They may then carry the newly-hatched juveniles to the water in their mouths, although the nests will still hatch out without the female being present. Adult females stay close to and protect the small crocodiles for a variable period following this, but protection is not as long as the sympatric C. porosus. Disturbance is more likely to result in the female abandoning the nest and her offspring. Cannibalism has been reported, often due to a scarcity of food. Only 1% of these hatchlings will survive to reach maturity, and in some years predation pressures are so high that it is unlikely that any new animals are recruited into the adult population. In some years, early rains at the end of the dry season can destroy almost all the nests through flooding. Juveniles which survive to maturity have been found returning to the same breeding and nesting areas.

Hunting has been less of a problem than with C. porosus, mainly due to the presence of ventral osteoderms in the belly scales of adults. Long-term aboriginal hunting did not significantly affect the population, but advances in tanning processes at the end of the 1950s meant that freshwater crocodile skins could be utilised when C. porosus populations became depleted. This hunting caused a widespread reduction in the population until protection measures were implemented in the 1960s and 1970s. Although a small amount of illegal poaching and killing no doubt persists, the major threat at the moment is the omnipresent one of habitat destruction. Recently, invasive species such as cane toads have led to mortality of adults and presumably juveniles in otherwise healthy populations. The threat of these toads has not yet been ascertained properly, although it is likely that only dwarf populations are under any real long-term threat. Populations have recently recovered to a significant extent. Small-scale farming and ranching programs exist for commercial purposes, and monitoring and management studies which were initiated in the 1970s are still ongoing. Valuable long-term research is being conducted upon the population dynamics of this species, together with other studies looking at biology, physiology and development. Population estimates vary, as the species can be difficult to survey effectively, but it is not unreasonable to assume that there are at least 100,000 individuals in the wild.