The word for Crocodile; according to Herodotus, the Greek historian, in the Ancient Egyptian was “champsa.” The Ancient Greek is κροκόδιλος (Crocodilos or crocodeilos), which is a compound of krokè and drilos/dreilos which literally means “pebble-worm” or more colloquially “lizard.” Though quite wrong by all scientific standards, as they are not lizards, the words simply show the ancients attempts at superficial classification.
The Arabic term is iedschun. The same root kar or kroc leads to something like kar-kar-la, glakarla then to lacerta and to “lizard.” Lacerta has become, in Spanish, lagario, which, with its article, then “lagurto,” and that is the origin of the term “alligator.” Spanish and Portuguese speaking people in the Americas, call the crocodiles and the alligators simply lagarto, which was never intended for any lizard.
To the ancient Egyptians, the “Timsa,” the “Champsa” of Herodotus, was a familiar reptile ; but from the lower and middle portion of the Nile, as far up as Thebes, the species has long since been extirpated, although it is still abundant in East and South Africa. Elsewhere it occurs in Madagascar, and still survived into the 20th century, in Syria, in the Zerka ( Crocodile) River near Caesarea.
The killing of a monster.
That’s how this scene, and nearly all others like it involving Crocodiles, were portrayed for as long as people have been telling stories, all the way up to our modern day. Even today, though there is a great deal more understanding and sympathy than there ever was, the Crocodile is still portrayed as the monster that must killed.
In Biblical times crocodiles were abundant in the Middle East; and there is little doubt that “leviathan” of the Book of Job refers to them. It was known in Roman times both in southern France and on Sicily. Until nearly the 15th century crocodiles lived in Greece and the Isles of the Grecian Archipelago ; and at that date a huge crocodile’s skull was jealously preserved and exhibited at Rhodes. It is these ancient south European crocodiles which gave rise to the legend of St. George and the Dragon and other myths of a kindred nature.
The crocodilians belong to the same family as the Dinosaurs, the Archosaurs, or “ruling reptiles.” They appeared on Earth before the Dinos at the start of the Triassic period, 210 million years ago. They are only distantly related to modern reptiles, about equal to a human in relation to a sloth! For unknown reasons the crocs survived the trauma at the end of the Cretaceous that annihilated both their land locked cousins, the Dinosaurs, but also destroyed the Mosasaurs which were also reptiles and must have had a similar life style. Alligators evolved in the most recent 10-15 million years, during the course of 16 recurring ice ages taking place in North America. Hence the Alligator is the only cold adapted crocodilian.
Top Left– A Nile Crocodile catches a wildebeest
Top Right– A juvenile Cuban Crocodile
Lower left– An adult American Crocodile
Lower Right– An adult Nile Crocodile
The old question of, “crocodile or alligator?” proceeds from a false assumption; that there are only 2 choices. In the popular world view there is still much confusion between crocodiles and alligators, especially as it doesn’t end there. There alligators, crocodiles, caiman and gharials! In India crocodiles were called alligators through the 1950’s, although there is not a single true alligator in the whole Indian sub-continent. Alligators are confined to China, where they barely hang on, and North America. The alligators of South America, are properly known as caiman, they differ from the North American species by having a bony armor on the under as well as on the upper surface.
There are many characters distinguishing crocodiles from alligators; one of the most easily recognized being that the fourth lower tooth of a crocodile fits into a notch on the outer side of the upper jaw, so that it is visible when the mouth is closed. In the alligator, that same tooth is received into a pit, so that the tip is completely concealed when the reptile shuts its mouth.
True crocodiles, which, with alligators, caimans, and gharials or gavials, are the largest of living reptiles, are now represented by about twenty five species, whose combined range includes Africa,(though now entirely sub-Saharan,) southern and southeastern Asia from India to New Guinea and beyond, northern Australia, a large portion of the east Indian and southwestern Pacific oceans, and both tropical Americas, including several Caribbean Isles.
There is actually a story of a Nile Crocodile showing up in Sicily, in early Roman times.
The story of the centurion soldier that killed it may have given rise the entire St George myth.
Crocodilians possess a chemical in their blood called “crocodilan.” This chemical is an anti-microbial agent so potent it kills all known bacteria and prevents cancer. This allows many crocodilians to survive horrendous wounds without danger of infection. Unfortunately it also causes liver damage in people.
Crocodiles are ambush predators, waiting for either aquatic or land prey to come close, then rushing out to attack. Crocodiles eat nearly all the animals that could be listed as sharing their habitat, except in certain special diet cases, like the gharial, where only fish are eaten. And a few types will cannibalize smaller crocodilians.
What a crocodile eats varies greatly with species, size and age. From the slender-snouted crocodile and freshwater crocodile and gharials, which are mostly fish-eating species; to the largest species of Nile crocodile and the saltwater crocodile, that prey on local large mammals, such as zebra, wildbeest, buffalo, deer and wild boar, the diet shows great diversity.
Diet is also greatly affected by the size and age of the individual within the species. Young crocodiles hunt mostly invertebrates and small fish, moving onto larger prey, as they enlarge. As poikilothermic, (AKA cold-blooded) predators, they have a fairly slow metabolism, so they can survive long periods without food. It is estimated that a crocodile requires only 20% of the food of the a similar sized mammalian predator. Therefore a 300 pound crocodile need only hunt perhaps once to the 300 pound lion’s 5 times! A great savings in energy and reduction in possibilities of being injured.
Despite this torpid appearance, crocodiles have a very fast strike and all large ones are top predators. Various species have been observed attacking and killing other predators such as sharks, pythons, wild dogs and big cats.
The Crocodile Lexicon
Crocodiles are the most vocal of all reptiles, and have a language of at least 20 word-phrases; (though they don’t have much competition there, as most reptiles are mute.) They produce a complicated variety of sounds, from squeaks, chirps to growls, barks, howls and groans to a swamp shaking bellow that can be heard for miles. These vocalizations change due to situations and conditions, species, age, size and sex.
These vocalizations are made especially during territorial displays towards the same sex and courtship with the opposite sex. Therefore most vocalizations are made during the breeding season, exceptions being the year round territorial behavior in some species and quarrels during feeding. Crocodiles also produce different distress calls and aggressive displays to their own kind than to other animals. Therefore other predators will hear different calls than competitor crocodiles would during inter-specific predatory confrontations over carcasses and terrestrial kills.
Chirp: When about to hatch, the young make a “peeping” noise, which calls the female to excavate the nest. The female then tears the leathery eggs, gathers the hatchlings in her mouth and transports them to the water. In many species they remain in a group for several months, protected by the female, and her female relatives.
Distress call: A high-pitched call used by younger crocodilians to alert other crocodiles to imminent danger.
Threat call: A hissing or coughing meant to warn off an enemy that has strayed too close.
Hatching call: Made by females when breeding to alert other crocodiles that she has laid eggs.
Bellowing: Adult males are the most vocal of all. Choruses occur most often in the spring when breeding groups congregate, but can occur at any time of year, and in reasponse to thunder storms. To bellow, males inflate as they raise the tail and head out of water. They then puff out the throat and with a closed mouth, begin to vibrate air. Just before bellowing, males project an infrasonic signal at about 10 Hz through the water which vibrates the ground and nearby objects. These low-frequency vibrations travel great distances, as much as 10 miles! through both air and water to advertise the male’s presence and are so powerful they result in odd “reverse rain drops” to fly up out of the water. This both establishes the males territory to other males and lets the females know he’s ready when they are.
Domed Pressure Receptors (DPRs
The upper and lower jaws are covered with sensory pits, visible as small, small black speckles on the skin. The crocodilian version of the lateral line organs seen in sharks, fish and many amphibians, though arising from a completely different origin. These pigmented nodules hold bundles of nerves leading down to the trigeminal nerve in the jaw. They respond to the slightest disturbance in surface water, detecting vibrations and pressure changes as small as a single drop. This makes it possible for crocodiles to detect prey, danger and intruders, even in total darkness. These sense organs are known as Domed Pressure Receptors (DPRs). Therefore there is no way a human can hide from a crocodilian under water.
While alligators and caimans have DPRs only on their jaws, true crocodiles have similar organs on almost every scale on their bodies. The function of these is still not clear. The DPRs flatten when exposed to increased osmotic pressure, such as that experienced when swimming in sea water hyper-osmotic (higher salt content) to the body fluids. In the lab, when contact between the DPRs and the surrounding sea water solution is blocked, crocodiles are found to lose their ability to discriminate salinities. It has been proposed that the flattening of the sensory organ in hyper-osmotic sea water is sensed by the animal as “touch”, but interpreted as chemical information about its surroundings. As crocodiles are the only Crocodilians to live in the ocean, this might be why in alligators they are absent on the rest of the body. It may also answer why alligators sometimes die when found in sea water.
Since they feed by grabbing, holding and dragging their prey into the water, they have evolved sharp conical teeth for piercing and holding, and powerful muscles to close the jaws and hold them shut. The teeth are ill suited to tearing flesh; opposite the case for the dentition and claws of many mammalian carnivores, the hooked bills and talons of raptorial birds, or the serrated teeth of sharks. However, this is an advantage to the crocodile since peg-like teeth allow it to hold onto prey with the least possibility of the prey animal to escape. Otherwise combined with the exceptionally high bite force, the flesh would easily cut through; thus creating an escape opportunity for the prey item. The jaws can bite down with immense force, by far the strongest bite of any animal.
The extraordinary bite of crocodilians is a result of their peculiar anatomy. The space for the jaw muscle in the skull is unusually large, which is easily visible from the outside as a bulge at each side. The muscle is so stiff, it is almost as hard as bone to the touch, as if it were a continuation of the skull. Most of the muscle in a crocodile’s jaw is arranged for clamping down. Despite the strong muscles to close the jaw, crocodiles have extremely small and weak muscles to open the jaw. Crocodiles can thus be subdued for study or transport by taping their jaws or holding their jaws shut with large rubber bands.
Nile and Salt Water Crocodiles may grow to a length of 18 and probably 20 feet or more, and are easily the most powerful creatures in fresh water, seizing and dragging down all who come to draw water. Gripping by the nose cattle and other animals which come to drink. A creature thus seized has little chance of escape, no matter what may be its size, as it is taken at a disadvantage and rendered comparatively helpless; but there is a well-authenticated story of a Nile crocodile seizing a rhinoceros by one of the hind-legs just as it was about to leave the river, and eventually dragging the enormous beast, despite its frantic efforts, backwards into deep water, where it was drowned.
It’s a Crocodile, but this kind of thing is pretty common if your fishing or walking very close to the water. Usually the human is just being chased away, not hunted.
Author Bill Boesenberg