The Croc from Mars

Friday 9 February: 20.00–21.00

Continuing this evening is the fascinating wildlife documentary series that sees naturalist Nick Baker scour the world for the strangest creatures in the animal kingdom. In this programme, he travels to India to meet Romulus Whitaker, an American expatriate who is a world authority on crocodiles, and where he comes face to face with some 2,500 crocs.

Despite having been on the planet for many millions of years, relatively little is known about the gharial, and its numbers are dwindling. There are possible references to the creature in Hindu mythology and Roman writing, and it was first officially described by science in 1789. As recently as the 1970s, however, a scientist suggested that such a beast existed only in the human imagination. The gharial has made it onto Nick’s list because of its relative rarity and because it stands out among all other crocodiles. While it is still very large – adults can grow up to six metres in length – the gharial has developed very long, narrow, and highly specialised jaws. Weirdest of all, however, is the fleshy growth – named the ‘ghara’, after an Indian water pot – which sits on the end of the snout in adult males.

The gharial is now only to be found on the Indian subcontinent, but before he flies out, Nick begins his research at his childhood haunt – the Natural History Museum in London. It is at this museum that Nick first fell in love with the diverse world of animals, but now he visits to breathe life into the dried bones and pickled skin of the strangest creatures he can find. Dr Angela Milner of the museum’s palaeontology department explains that while crocodiles may look like dinosaurs, they are only a very distant relative. The gharial, however, may be more closely related to the baryonyx, a dinosaur whose skull also featured the elongated jaw. The gharial, like the baryonyx millions of years before it, has evolved to eat solely fish.

Once out in southern India, Nick meets up with croc expert Romulus Whitaker. Romulus runs a crocodile bank, set up to preserve India’s reptiles, and is in charge of some 2,500 mugger crocs. Along with these more common animals, however, he also keeps gharials, and Nick soon gets his first glimpse of one of the strangest faces in India.

Wanting to get close to the animals but conscious of the fact that they are large predators, Nick is guided to some youngsters which he can examine at length. Pulling one out of the water, Nick remarks that “a gharial in the hand is worth several in the river,” and begins to describe what makes them special. With a very muscular rear end, a wide tail base, and semi-webbed back feet, the animals are designed to propel themselves through water at high speeds. They are also relatively smooth, enabling them to flow through the water without resistance. In fact, the whole design of the animal is geared towards an aquatic life, unlike its cousins.

To learn more about the gharials’ odd jaws, Nick joins Romulus for feeding time. As they throw fish over the side of the adult enclosure, it becomes obvious what the animals are designed to do. With swift, almost untrackable movements, the gharials snap their heads sideways and catch their prey before it hits the water. While in the wild they would not be “catching fish from the sky,” as Nick puts it, the same principles apply. The jaws of the gharials may be thin, but they are lethal.

So now Nick knows why the gharials’ snouts are long, but what of the ghara? After millions of years of evolution had produced such a sleek animal, such an odd protrusion seems to ruin the design. Some theories suggest that the ghara has some sort of feeding application; others lean towards a communicative function. One other suggestion is that the ghara could be a display of male sexual dominance. Could such a bizarre characteristic be the reptilian equivalent of a medallion? Whatever the reason, Nick reflects, nothing in nature lasts unless it has a use.

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