Mad About Science: Crocodilians, redux

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Particularly longtime readers of this article may remember the second-ever “Mad About Science,” written by a snot-nosed brat who ham-fisted his way across a keyboard and, by some miracle, was allowed to be published twice.

To those of you who have moved here recently: You will have the pleasure of enjoying an article that you otherwise wouldn’t realize is upcycled!

Image courtesy Creative Commons.

Crocodilians are magnificent and terrifying creatures. Few things in the world can humble a fully grown human faster than a nine-foot-long lizard surging from the murky depths full of teeth and fury. Many folks are familiar with the American alligator. America’s worst superhero, Florida Man, seems to do battle with these creatures at least once a week, if the reports are to be believed.

The American alligator can grow up to 500 pounds and 15 feet in length. These creatures are essentially designed to do two things: anchor into prey and apply torque. A fully grown gator has been recorded to have exerted nearly 3,000 pounds of force with its bite. It uses this immense force to clamp onto its prey, then thrashes its tail to roll, twisting the muscles of its prey, snapping bones like cheap pottery, and ultimately drowning it in a mix of swamp water and blood. An alligator then uses its tremendous bite force and strength to rip pieces from the carcass and swallow the bits with relatively little chewing. After all, those teeth are for clamping, not chewing.

Not all crocodilians are lumbering giants, however. Some are as tiny and adorable as a primordial killing machine can be. Cuvier’s dwarf caiman is a smaller crocodilian, growing anywhere from two-and-a-half to five feet long. They have large amber-colored eyes and relatively short snouts compared to other crocs. Dwarf caimans will change their diet as they age, spending their early lives eating insects, crawfish, crabs or small fish. As they grow, their palate expands to include larger fish and even mammals foolish enough to draw too near to the water. Similar to alligators, dwarf caimans can’t chew their food, so if it’s too large to fit down their throat, they’ll have to tear pieces off or risk suffocation.

Dwarf caimans are unique creatures when it comes to reproduction. Females build a mound nest from dirt and plant debris and deposit up to 25 eggs inside. She makes sure the conditions of this nest are perfect for her young, as she won’t sit on the eggs but will guard the nest for up to three months while the eggs incubate. A few days after hatching, the baby caimans will leave their nursery and venture out on their own.

One of the most unique crocodilians is the gharial, a native to the Indian subcontinent and a creature that very closely resembles its ancestors from a time when our ancestors looked like funny squirrels a few million years after a meteor wiped out the dinosaurs. Gharials sport long slender snouts and rows of razor sharp teeth. They are especially suited to hunting fish. So well-equipped for hunting fish that gharials seldom leave the water, except to sun themselves or make their nests ahead of the monsoon season. Unfortunately, due to a number of human-related reasons, ranging from mining to agriculture and overfishing, gharials have become critically endangered in the wild. They are a living relic to a time before mammalian domination on planet Earth, and a terrifyingly beautiful creature at that.

Crocodilians are often referred to as living fossils, and erroneously said to have not evolved since the age of the dinosaurs. Many of them have evolved considerably, and just about all of them have shrunk to be able to keep up with smaller, more agile prey. The crocodilians that lurked in the rivers and seas during the age of the dinosaurs were considerably larger than even the biggest ones we see today.

Shockingly one of the largest crocodilians we’ve ever found lived uncomfortably close to the age of humanity. Deinosuchus was a crocodile that stretched as long as 40 feet and could weigh up to 11,000 pounds. These titans fed on dinosaurs for 10s of millions of years, including snacking on a number of close relatives to the Tyrannosaurus rex from the group of animals known as Theropods. Theropods were carnivorous bipedal dinosaurs that included things like T.rexes, the Utahraptor and even the chicken. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

There is fossil evidence of Deinosuchus teeth marks on fossilized remains of Theropod tails, so we know that dinosaurs were on the menu for these big beasts. Scientists have also calculated that it’s likely Deinosuchus was capable of performing the dreaded death roll employed by modern alligators. The amount of torque force generated by an 11,000 pound creature is staggering, and should give you nightmares just thinking about.

The last Deinosuchus died out about 2.6 million years ago, though the largest of their kind had probably faded many millions of years before that. Amazingly, they thrived on Earth for 144 million years before hanging up the apex predator jersey for good.

After researching for this article, the only crocs I plan on going around are the ones I put on my feet to go out into the garden.

Stay curious, 7B.

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