are 25 species. Little changed in 100 million years. Armour plating
consists of plates of bone and horn. Lay eggs on land and generally
show considerable parental care of their young. Raised nostrils
can be closed when diving. Prey is ripped apart or held under water
until drowned. Feet show partial webbing to aid swimming. Snout
shape and dentition are major differences between groups:
Environment: Aquatic (fresh water), Terrestrial (land)
Gavials - Very long and slender snouts. Eat mainly fish and
Crocodiles - Both upper and lower teeth are visible when
mouth is shut. Snout fairly slender.
Alligators, Caimans - Broad snouts. Only upper teeth are
visible when mouth is shut. Many hibernate in winter.
All Over the World
opinion of hit television show The X Files went downhill
after a recent episode. The programme featured a mysterious dog-eating
creature in a Canadian lake, which turned out to be a large alligator.
are reptiles, so are cold blooded. In northern climates, while they
might be able to survive a summer, it is far from the blistering
sultry heat of South Carolina or Florida.
Large alligators are also extremely heavy. If they leave the water
to snap up a dog, they would leave typical heavy three-toed footprints
impossible to hide or mistake for anything in that boggy terrain.
is how dinosaurs left their footprints to slowly fossilise, plodding
millions of years ago across similar marshy ground.
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, an eight-foot alligator ambushed
a resident out filling his bird feeder one evening.
Apparently, the alligator had been used to being fed titbits as
well, so when none were forthcoming on this occasion, it took matters
into its own hands.
I have seen the way residents live on Hilton Head. These former
plantation lands are low lying and have been divided up into high-quality
In broad swathes between the fairways, just back from the rough,
are extensive winding lines of houses.
Everywhere, there are ponds connected to one another by ditches
and streams and pipes. Every pond which contains some cover – just
one overhanging bush will do – or a small island, contains a smallish
each pond contains just one alligator – they are so aggressive and
territorial they make sure no others can share the limited amount
they grow on to 1.5 metres or so, the park service usually locates
them to somewhere more appropriate before they can become a danger.
However, it is fairly common for them to nab the occasional dog
now and then.
20-30 years ago, alligators in America had been hunted to a dangerously
low level. With protection, they have increased, so today there
are thousands of them.
This can sometimes create real problems, occasionally placing conservationists
in direct conflict with the needs of ordinary people.
northern Australia, Darwin is polluted with salt-water crocodiles,
a highly aggressive member of the genus.
Darwin's Harbour has crocodile traps set to catch them as they enter.
Elsewhere, they are encouraged as a major tourist draw. Trouble
is they have increased to such an extent that, in many places, they
are a menace. Swimming and most water sport are out of the question.
it is hard not to feel sympathy for riverbank residents along the
Orinoco River in South America.
For many years, they have been enjoying a modern lifestyle of swimming
and water ski-ing. One day, they woke up to discover conservationists
had well-developed plans to re-introduce the Orinoco Crocodile,
a creature virtually extinct on that river.
brings us back to Britain. A local authority in north-east England
announced a "caiman amnesty". A number of people bought hatchling
Spectacled Caimans (a form of South American crocodile) from a pet
shop to keep as unusual and distinctive little pets. These have
now grown to about two-thirds of a metre in length and are apparently
being abandoned here and there. The local authority has decided
to deal with what they see as a continuing nuisance all in one go
- hence the amnesty. It will be interesting to watch developments.
Osprey Prey to Crocodile
was a sad tale about one of the Scottish ospreys from Loch Awe early
in 2001. This bird was hatched in 1998 and ringed in its nest. It
then safely negotiated a dangerous migration to its wintering grounds
in the mangrove swamps of West Africa. If dodging all the hazards
such as guns, starvation and fierce weather were not enough, once
in West Africa another hazard literally rears its head from time to
time – crocodiles.
poor bird must have dived at a fish and in the commotion, both bird
and fish together were gulped down by a croc. How do we know
this? Doudou Ndong, a fisherman on the Gambia river, last year
captured a croc. In its stomach was the ring from the leg of the
osprey. He sent it off to the address printed on the side. Sadly,
that will be one less bird to return next Easter to join the ranks
of the 150 or so pairs which now breed in Scotland.