Predators from Prehistory: Crocodiles

Written by Thomson Safaris
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Crocodile shows off its (fierce) pearly whites
Photo: Thomson Safaris guest, Harry Coulombe

Everyone jokes that cockroaches are the consummate survivors; if there were a nuclear holocaust, we’d all be gone, as would 99.9% of the species we know, but cockroaches? They’d be fine.

But hardy as they are, cockroaches aren’t the only species that deserve the title. Crocodiles have been around in some form or another for over 220 million years, meaning they’ve managed to survive two mass extinction events (including the one that wiped out the last of the dinosaurs), as well as a host of minor extinction events and major ecological shifts. (Start of the Ice Age? No problem. End of the Ice Age? On it.)

Not only have they managed to outlive their Jurassic (and Triassic) counterparts, they’ve barely needed a tuneup in the last 65 million years. So what about crocs makes them so suited to survival? How did they evolve into the mouse trap of reptilian predators (you can’t build a better one)?

First off, crocodiles have an excellent, shall we say, “tool kit.” And by “tool kit,” we mean “set of teeth.”

Their jaws are so powerful that they can crush everything from fish to large grazing animals (even the smaller sub-species can do some serious damage). Better yet, crocs are as sensitive as they are strong (making them the perfect romantic partners?). Tiny dome-shaped bumps all over the face are more sensitive than human fingertips, and trigger a “SNAP” reaction almost instantaneously. They also have such keen hearing they can hear their babies crying from inside the shell. Basically, you’ll never catch these guys off-guard.

Crocodile Mara River

Settling into a food coma after feasting on the Great Migration
Photo: Thomson Safaris guest, Adam Nielson

 

Secondly, they can handle the lean times. Extremely slow metabolisms mean they can go months without eating if necessary, and when they do eat, they can gorge, “refueling” for another (potentially) long stretch.

They’re also excellent parents; though babies incubate for an average of just 80 days, the hatchlings may be protected for many months, giving them a good chance to live to adulthood (and continue the species).

Finally, crocs have been opportunistic. When huge numbers of dinosaurs died off in mass extinction events, crocodiles took advantage of the fact, moving into rivers and oceans where they no longer faced much competition (and where more species remained for the eatin’). Both freshwater and saltwater species have evolved, and while their bodies are now best suited to a marine life, they can also cover serious ground on land when necessary.

It’s also crucial to remember that while some version of the crocodile has existed for over 220 million years, there were also rejected models. Oversized dino-crocs died out along with the T. Rex, as have versions with stubby little snouts, a species with pelican-like gullets, and a number of varieties that ran on two legs.

All those years of tweaking have left the crocodile streamlined, both evolutionarily and in its favorite modern environment, just beneath the surface of the water.

So yes, bet on the cockroaches.

But don’t only bet on them…