May 2017


Crocs: The Giants in the Reptile World
May 2017




Dare to get closer!

The Island's water bodies are home to two species of Crocodiles; the Salt water and the Mugger crocodile. Over 100 million years in the making, the croc is the largest reptile in Sri Lanka!


Words: Nethu Wickramasinghe | Photography: L. J. Mendis Wickramasinghe


The crocodiles are fine-tuned apex predators well adapted to an aquatic environment. Its hard scaly body cover, lengthy sturdy tail, sharp teeth and powerful jaws, are all built for the kill. The saltwater and the Mugger crocodile can be found in the drier parts of the island, you will find only the much larger saltwater crocodile in the wet zone. The crocs are adaptable hunters, tailoring their strategy according to their prey. They are able to lurk beneath the waters without a ripple on the surface for a very long time, waiting for the perfect moment.


To observe their fine displays of agility the best time of the year would be when water becomes scarce along with its food resources. This is also the time when these predators despite their stealth become helpless. I recall one such experience in Hambanthota, while I was gathering field data as part of a biodiversity assessment. The monsoon season had come to an end at Hambanthota, Samarakoon Wewa. The sun was implacable and relentless, the water gradually evaporating due to the heat together with the vital food resources for the animals. A large commotion drew my attention, and we were astonished to find a long 12 feet mugger crocodile, trapped inside a deep well. This was indeed one of the lucky crocodiles to be rescued on time and released to the wild.


The saltwater crocs are the largest species of crocodiles to wander the earth, and are distributed from India to even the northern coasts of Australia. In Sri Lanka, saltwater crocodiles are common within wet zone mangrove swamps, marshes, rivers, and coastal canals. These crocs are rather more difficult to see, however a view of a one to three-foot long saltwater crocs basking during dawn in mangroves close to the water's surface, at Madu Ganga in Galle, Bolgoda and the Kalu river in Kalutara and Muthurajawela in Gampaha is a familiar sight.


During heavy rain falls of the south western monsoons, these crocs get caught to strong currents and are then washed to the sea shores. They stay here, at this location for a couple of days before moving upstream once again. During the dry season when water levels drop drastically the crocs travel great distances migrating from one location to another in search of better feeding grounds, where much of their past experiences will teach them, which waterways to use during difficult times. They require water to keep themselves cool, and regulate their body temperature as well as to locate food. During the dry season in Yala, what we witnessed was a large gathering of mugger crocodiles, at the Coma Wewa. They were community hunting, a strategy, which works very well during the dry season when the concentration of fish is high as the water levels subside. While the giants were feeding on their share of fish, birds such as egrets too try to take a risky free ride, on the backs of the crocs to hunt down a fish or two that pop up, but always staying on guard. For, the moment the free ride ends, is when the bird becomes the ultimate prey to another waiting crocodile.

In Sri Lanka, Saltwater crocs are common in the wet zone mangrove swamps, marshes, rivers, and coastal canals.


Crocodiles are ambush predators, and can lurk beneath the still waters without a single ripple on the surface, keeping merely their eyes ears and nostrils above, almost completely submerged. Crocodiles can even stay under water for as long as an hour. When the size of its prey is large, it will feed on it for several days. They are also seen having their large jaws wide open, as if they are panting, a behavior called gaping, where the biologists have yet to understand its true meaning. It was from Galle, Habaraduwa that I once witnessed a mound nest, which belonged to a saltwater crocodile. The nest was built quite close to a human settlement in a marshy area. This particular mound was built out of leaf litter and soil/mud. The female croc was on guard, and disturbing the nests during this time would make it aggressive. A large sized female can lay up to 80 eggs. She needs to maintain an optimum temperature within the nest until the young are hatched. After three months the baby crocodiles are ready to come out of their nests. The temperature determines the gender of crocodiles, where cooler eggs produce females. The eggs all hatch together, as they start making little vocal sounds while inside the egg and continue after birth to communicate with the mother croc for maternal care. Hatchlings rarely venture out in the land because they can be easily picked up by predators and most never make it to the waters.


From impeccable hunting tactics to survival strategies 100 million years of evolution has fine-tuned the crocs' art of survival even in the harshest of conditions. They have adapted to every change in the environment, yet their survival at the hands of humans is a struggle beyond their abilities!

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    Scale pattern on body cover of a Saltwater crocodile

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    A sub-adult saltwater croc, basking in the sun

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    An egret taking a risky free ride on the back of a croc

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    A mother croc guarding its nest

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    Crocs often sun bask to increase their body temperature - don't disturb me!

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    Enjoying the cool waters at the Buthawa wewa spill

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    A detailed foot print of a hind limb of a Mugger croc

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    In a flash; a male and a female croc feast

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    Chilling out; a mugger on an island of the Galoya, Senanayake Samudraya

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