Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

Ok, everyone's doing it! But it's that time of year when December 25th rolls around again. Has it really been a year? Wow. So for those that celebrate Christmas, have a great time, and for those that don't, have a great time anyway. We're taking a bit of a break but we'll be back next year with more crocodile posts and the occasional crazy story.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

When Crocs Ate Dinosaurs

Some people get quite upset over the notion that dinosaurs might have been eaten by "crocs" (or more accurately, crocodyliforms - extinct ancestors of modern crocodiles) but it's true, they certainly were. In fact, the crocodyliform group was arguably as diverse and successful as the dinosaurs were in their day. You might even argue that modern crocs have lost out big time compared with those modern dinosaurs, the birds, but in fact they've simply consolidated what they're good at into 23 very successful species... even though some are doing better than others. Although modern crocodylians are doing a lot of things right, they're not as diverse as they once were. If you're not convinced you should check out National Geographic's new show called, provocatively enough, When Crocs Ate Dinosaurs. It premiere's tonight, but you can find the full listings for when it's on in your area at National Geographic's website (in the US, it's on Saturday 21 November at 9pm EST).

While I'm not entirely sure that the names will go down in historical infamy, Paul Sereno will introduce you such marvellous creatures as Dog Croc, Boar Croc (pictured) and even Pancake Croc. That's right, Pancake Croc. While I doubt Paul is suggesting that it dined with the assistance of maple syrup, it certainly had a very bizarre skull. We hosted Paul here in Darwin, and introduced him to some remarkable things that modern crocs can do. Watch the show and be awed by what has gone before, and what we still have.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


We've just set up the website for CrocWatch, which is a community-based crocodile education and awareness initiative. It's all non-profit, linked to FrogWatch (hence the name), and still a work in progress as we put any available time into expanding it.

The goal with CrocWatch is to get better information about crocodiles to the community in northern Australia, both in terms of understanding crocodiles better and also in terms of safety issues. While it has an Australian focus, the issues it presents are global in nature: how to engage communities with crocodiles, increase knowledge about crocodiles, increase respect for crocodiles, and increase safety and awareness of crocodiles in a realistic manner.

So come and visit the website at and see what you think. Feel free to register and participate in the forums too.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Crocodile myths #1 - the curious trochilus

I intend to make this a continuing series of articles, at least until I run out of crocodile myths to discuss. There are, as you might infer, no shortage of wild and wonderful myths associated with crocodiles (and alligators). Many of these seem to originate with the Greek philosopher Herodotus, and if he were still around I'd have a bone to pick with him. Whether he was misinterpreting crocodile natural history, or whether he was simply making stuff up is hard to say, but his influence has reached across the millennia.

One of the most popular myths is that of "trochilus" as Herodotus, and later Aristotle and Pliny, call it. This is supposed to be an Egyptian bird that flies into the mouth of a basking crocodile and feeds on scraps of food and leeches attached to the jawline and tongue. Herodotus describes it as follows: "...for the crocodile, when he leaves the water and comes out upon the land, is in the habit of lying with his mouth wide open, facing the western breeze: at such times the trochilus goes into his mouth and devours the leeches. This benefits the crocodile, who is pleased, and takes care not to hurt the trochilus." Many have attributed this behaviour to the Egyptian plover (Pluvianus aegyptius) which is a very common bird often seen around basking Nile crocodiles, although there's no proof that this is what Herodotus was referring to.

This description of a bird that cleans the teeth of crocodiles has undoubtedly entered popular culture, so much so that crocodiles are often used by advertising agencies to promote dental hygiene. But is it true? Do plovers or indeed any other birds actually clean the teeth of crocodiles?

(c) Warren Photographic, Used with Permission

I'll begin my answer with the opinion that I don't believe a word of it. However, there's more to this story than just a simple yes or no. First off, there's no evidence anywhere in photographs or film to show birds cleaning crocodile teeth or ripping leeches from their tongue (with the exception of that particularly clever digital fake you see above; click on it for the full version) and no published reports of it in peer-reviewed literature. I'd have thought a mutual relationship of this kind would have been easily observed by now. Secondly, contrary to popular belief crocodiles do not need their teeth cleaning. They regularly shed their teeth and replace them with new ones: each visible tooth has a solid tip but a hollow base and inside this base, like a set of formidable Russian dolls, are smaller teeth waiting to emerge. Tooth decay, broken teeth and staining are never a permanent problem for a crocodile. Thirdly, food simply cannot get stuck between their teeth - they are too widely spaced for food particles to get jammed in there, and they are regularly washed with water every time the crocodile slides off the bank. While bacteria and microscopic particles can indeed become prevalent around the base of the teeth, these are not problems that are going to be solved by the pecking of a bird large or small. Leeches are another matter, and crocodiles certainly suffer from these insidious passengers. It's generally thought that gaping the mouth during the day helps a crocodile to dry its mouth and hence discourage leeches, but do birds also help out? If they do, it hasn't been documented as such.

So what's going on? Am I just a born skeptic? Perhaps I am, but that doesn't mean there isn't something in this compelling relationship. Birds of various species are often found feeding in close proximity to crocodiles, and immobile crocodiles basking on the bank in the sun are rarely if ever concerned about birds wandering between them, standing on their back, or straying close to their jaws. Birds are opportunists too, and they will feed on flies and other insects on and around crocodiles. It may even appear that they are removing flies from the crocodile's jaws on occasion. But extrapolating this into a mutual relationship between crocodile and bird is going a bit far. Crocodiles hardly benefit from the presence of the birds, and yet they tolerate their presence because it's just not worth chasing them. Crocodiles aren't always in the mood for feeding, and they're smart enough to let difficult to catch prey like alert birds pass them by.

So if you ask me, the crocodile bird exists in name only. There is no mutual relationship between them, as none has ever been seriously documented, no advantage would be gained by the crocodile, and the hypothesis just doesn't add up. Of course, I like to think that I'll reconsider anything based on actual evidence. I wait in hope.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Crocs on a plane

Oh no, I didn't just use that headline did I? It had to happen of course, someone released a crocodile on a commercial airliner. Passengers screamed as a huge crocodile scuttled down the aisle. Hold on a second, it was actually just a hatchling, less than a foot long. Hatchling crocodiles look more like geckos, so there's really not much of a story here other than the opportunity to riff on an old meme. Still, you'd be surprised at how often this happens, crocodiles escaping during flights that is. One of my colleagues told me a story of something similar several years ago, and in that case he was able to grab the crocodile as it wandered out from under his seat. Of course, the wider implications of this story are the prevalence of smuggling exotic wildlife - highly valuable contraband. They often say that nature will find a way. Well, when it comes to valuable resources, people will also find a way. Of course, you don't find people smuggling large adults on commercial flights - they don't fit so easily into your flight bag.

As you might imagine, nobody on either flight described above claimed their crocodile.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Swimming with Crocodiles

There's been a bit of controversy recently around Darwin on the question of life guards (for our American readers, we're talking about people not personal flotating devices). It concerned whether or not funding should be provided to the Darwin Surf Life Savers for a life guard to patrol the popular Mindil Beach during the dry season, when there are plenty of tourists and locals alike who are looking to enjoy the sun, the sand and the surf. Why should this be a problem, you might ask? Well, one of them is whether or not the presence of a life guard effectively endorses swimming in the water that might be home to crocodiles, jellyfish, stingrays, sharks, sunburnt Poms and other nefarious creatures. One of these creatures always sets alarm bells ringing, and it's not the Poms.

Various interviews were conducted by the media, would you go swimming on the beach where more and more crocodiles are being spotted? And let's not mention the box jellyfish that, while generally restricted to the wet season, can occasionally be found in small numbers during the dry.

My opinion is that the point is being missed here. From 2006 to 2007 over 270 people died in Australia from drowning, and although this was reduced in the following year it still represented an alarming number of deaths that should have been avoided. In contrast, the number of crocodile-related fatalities in that period can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and none have ever occurred on or near the beaches of Darwin which are part of a no tolerance crocodile exclusion zone. While it is true that more crocodiles are moving around the coast than ever before, and while we are doing everything we can to increase crocodile safety and increase awareness of crocodiles, there has to be a point where it's all put into perspective. Even driving to the beach is considerably more dangerous than the remote chance of being attacked by a crocodile there.

People need information about crocodiles so they can make their own informed choices about safety. Having Life Savers on the beach is mainly about addressing drowning deaths, and that is a good thing. People won't stop swimming just because you don't have a life guard on duty, but the presence of one will greatly reduce risk. Do we really want to head down the slippery slope of banning any activity that has a remote chance of ending badly? Should we just stay at home and not get out of bed to maximise our chances of living another day? I don't think so... unless of course we are concerned about the possibility of a tree falling on the house. Life is indeed full of risks - where do we draw the line?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Saltwater crocodile safari hunting

Yesterday (Wednesday 15 April 2009) the Northern Territory Government unveiled its Draft Management Program for Saltwater Crocodiles in the Northern Territory 2009-13 (you can read it right here). Despite all the recent concerns about crocodile safety issues and changes in management, the one thing that has dominated the news about this new plan is the issue of safari hunting. There's nothing like the idea of people blowing large holes in native wildlife to stir the pot!

But hold on a second, you might wonder, didn't we stop doing that to saltwater crocodiles back in 1971? Well yes, and no. You see, the whole issue about safari hunting has become lost in media spin about gun totin' rednecks, hunters who can't shoot straight and the spectre of croc populations going down the gurgler. What's the real issue here?

The proposal, for that's all it is at this stage, is to implement an experimental harvest of 25 adult crocodiles greater than 3.5 metres in length. That means that breeding females are excluded, and that only adult males can be removed. Considering that 25 adults is an insignificant percentage of the crocodile population here (estimated to be around 80,000 not including hatchlings, and growing) there's no reasonable argument that the number being considered is harmful. What about the effects on population structure? That's a little more uncertain, particularly as it's known that in some areas the very largest crocodiles have a significant role to play in the social structure of less dominant crocodiles in the system. The implications of removing these big "boss crocodiles" isn't fully understood and certainly warrants further investigation.

The big advantage of the safari hunt, however, will be benefits to indigenous traditional landowners and communities - they own the vast majority of land in the Northern Territory for a start, and therefore they own most of the crocodiles here. Most of that land has very little potential to earn income for indigenous communities, but a limited safari hunt where professional hunters pay big bucks to shoot a handful of crocodiles in areas that few people visit would certainly be of great benefit to those communities and landowners. Traditional owners need more options on how to manage their wild resources, and how to make an income from the resources they own, and a safari hunt of crocodiles would give them that.

Sensible management strategies that bring benefits to communities and give them further reasons to value and properly manage their crocodile populations are a good thing. I do have some reservations about the details, about the impacts on large crocodiles, and about the potential loss of very big, rare animals to the Northern Territory (which, let's face it, are what any safari hunter will be after). I think those extremely rare, 18 foot plus saltwater crocodiles are priceless. Zoos overseas have offered 7 figure sums for such animals in the past (at least they did before the economic downturn!) so I hope that traditional owners can be made aware of the value of these exceptionally large animals so they can make an informed decision on how to manage them.

Of course, there are those who oppose safari hunting without exception. They won't even entertain the idea of any management strategy that involves killing a crocodile. I have to wonder whether those people are putting their personal beliefs and feelings ahead of what's best for crocodile conservation. Their feelings are really of no consequence compared with the importance of getting management right for crocodiles. One thing is clear about crocodile conservation: unless you work with the people who live around crocodiles, you will never get them to trust you or to listen to you. Get people on your side, consider what they need to get out of crocodile management, and you might make some progress.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Crocs and shoes

What is it about crocs and shoes? There's a certain uneasy relationship there. Crocs often end up on shoes (or at least their skin does), crocs lend their name to shoes (although there are some that would disagree that they were shoes) and now a well-known fashion brand has decided to celebrate its association with crocs by launching... well, a new set of shoes. They've also put together a rather neat little website celebrating crocodile myths around the world. It's light on content but high on style, and certainly worth a look. It looks like they've taken some of their species facts straight from Wikipedia (not a good omen), and it contains some of the worse proof reading I've ever seen, so don't take it all too seriously.

It's interesting, though, that while many people tend to regard live crocodiles with a great deal of suspicion, the iconographic crocodile is often depicted in a far better light. Many crocodile logos depict cartoony, jolly creatures more likely to dazzle you with their smiles than bite your arm off. Some logos are used in a more traditional sense to represent adventure and the hint of danger. And some are used to emphasise positive traits about crocodiles, such as strength, or stealth, or resilience. The fashion house we're talking above above, Lacoste, has been using the crocodile symbol since 1927 (or so we are told) since Rene Lacoste was compared to a crocodile (for its tenacity) after losing a game of golf. They're quite proud of their logo, considering the lengths they've gone to in the past to stop anyone from trying to use similar logos (although they probably took it a bit far trying to stop a dentist surgery from using a toothy croc logo). Fortunately crocs have survived nearly 240 million years without being copyrighted.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Preventing Crocodile Attacks

Yesterday (15 March 2009) an 11 year old local girl from Lambell's Lagoon was attacked and killed by a saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). She was swimming with two of her friends near an area known as Black Jungle, one of the few remnant areas of rainforest near Darwin. This tragedy is one of those unfortunate inevitabilities that you dread hearing about on the news. It's inevitable in the same way that you know a dangerous road junction will only be addressed once there's been a fatality there. The difference here is that it's not the place that makes it inevitable, it's the fact that crocodiles are living all around us and yet not enough is being done about safety.

Here in the Northern Territory we get on reasonably well with saltwater crocodiles most of the time. They attract a lot of tourists, their presence employs a lot of local people, and they're one of the more fascinating of our local fauna. Occasionally that relationship becomes strained, and for the next few days this will certainly be the case around Darwin. People will demand answers, how could such a tragedy be allowed to occur, what is going to be done about it, should we start culling crocodiles, and can we prevent it from happening again? There's a general helplessness surrounding the event, as with any tragedy really. But let's go back to some of those questions.

The first is how could something like this happen? We live in close proximity to wildlife in Darwin, particularly the rural area, yet few people expect to find crocodiles near their homes. However, a quick look on Google Earth will reveal that Black Jungle is only a few hundred metres from the nearest rural properties, and that there is easy road access to the area. Zooming out on Google Earth makes you realise that Darwin sits slap bang in the middle of crocodile habitat, and that crocodiles are all around us. Good luck finding a place that's safe to swim here apart from the local swimming pool. The potential for conflict is certainly there, particularly considering that in recent years crocodiles have been branching out from the packed tidal rivers that represent their preferred habitat into floodplains, upstream freshwater areas and around the coast in search of new places to live.

The next question is what can be done about it? Most of the suggestions will fall between two extremes: cull the crocodile population, or be more careful next time. Many people wanting immediate revenge will be swayed towards the former, whereas the government approach is much closer to the latter. Culling sounds sensible on paper, but in reality it's not a viable solution. Ignoring for a moment the potential value that crocodiles represent to the area, culling is not a safety solution. If there are 80,000 crocodiles, how many do you cull? Ten? Five hundred? Ten thousand? When does it suddenly become safe to swim again? Don't worry folks, there's only a few hundred crocs left in this river - you'll be right for a swim!

So what about being more careful next time? I doubt the parents of the girl taken by the crocodile wouldn't find that helpful piece of advice very reassuring. They wanted to know that it wasn't safe for their daughter to swim there in the first place. And therein lies the heart of the matter.

Nobody ever plans on being attacked by a crocodile. Nobody wants to be attacked by a crocodile. Yet it happens. Why? Because the person involved doesn't know the risk. They may not believe that there are any crocodiles in the area, they may not even know much about crocodiles. They may have been misled by people telling them it was safe to swim there, or they may simply have been doing this for years without any hint of a problem.

Whatever the reason, the solution seems obvious. People need to be aware of the danger that crocodiles can pose, and they need to be aware of where crocodiles can be found throughout the year. They need to know that crocodiles are now everywhere, potentially in any body of water that doesn't have a fence around it, and that swimming is not an option anymore. The last time there was a major educational drive on crocodile safety in the Northern Territory was nearly 30 years ago, and a lot has changed in that time not least the crocodile population and its distribution. Despite this, much of the same information is being used today and the differences between then and now are not being made clear.

People must have up-to-date and factually correct information about the danger posed by crocodiles, not only for their own safety but so that transparency and trust can be established. If people don't respect what you're telling them about crocodiles, you can't expect them to listen.

Saturday, March 07, 2009


On Saturday 7 March at 6pm at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory I'm giving a short presentation on crocodilians called Crocodile: Predator Evolved. Just to further encourage you to rush out of the door to get your seat, the headline act is Dr Paul Sereno (University of Chicago) giving a talk on fossil crocs including Supercroc. We're all hoping that Paul will tell us a little about a few recent fossil croc discoveries, creatures not quite as large as Supercroc but a whole lot more bizarre. In fact, it's the subject of a National Geographic documentary that we're filming with Paul here in Darwin at the moment. I don't think he can get over how remarkable galloping freshwater crocodiles are at close range - there's perhaps no better modern analogy for how these extinct terretrial predators used to hunt. If they didn't catch up with their prey, they probably scared them half to death from the sight!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy 200th Birthday

Charles Darwin was born on 12th February 1809, 200 years ago almost to the day. He popularised and promoted the idea of natural selection and evolution, a concept that he wasn't necessarily the first person to think about but certainly the person who brought the idea to a mass audience. And what a negative reaction he recieved back then, and judging by modern standards there is still a lot of controversy about it. The kicker was the concept of humans sharing ancestors with apes, rather than being created through divine means. Regardless of your beliefs, it has to be said that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution has had a profound and lasting impact on society.

That being said, living in the City of Darwin (named after the Beagle landed here and named it after their most famous passenger) gives a certain added significance to Darwin's birthday. All this year there are bicentenary celebrations in Darwin, and they have started with perhaps the best. As a way of illustrating Darwin's theory of evolution, the Museum and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory has opened a new exhibition on Supercrocodilians - essentially, using crocodilians (or crocodyliforms if you want to be pedantic about it) to show how the fossils evidence shows their change over time. It's an excellent exhibit with some absolutely stunning croc skulls and taxidermy mounts. I was at the opening yesterday, but I spent so much time talking with various people that I didn't get chance to absorb it all properly.

So, armed with a camera, I will return! And I will post some of pictures of grinning croc skulls here for your edification and enjoyment.