Crocodiles in Love
by Tara A. Spears
Ahh, springtime in the tropic: gorgeous jungle trees in blossom, iguanas fornicating daily, and roaming lusty crocs are looking for love. Usually the Mexican crocodile, (formally known as Morelet’s or Crocodylus moreletii) breeds between April and June. As with many species during the rut season the critters only have one thing on its mind and they tend to get much closer to humans than normal. Such is the case with the native Mexican crocodile.
These freshwater reptiles usually prefer secluded marsh, rivers, estuaries, canals or lakes in wooded areas, but as more homes are being built within the crocodiles’ territory, they are adapting to the human presence. During rut season when a male is in hot pursuit of love, it will enter yards, pools, and even come into a house! My first spring in South Florida, where I lived on a half acre on a fresh water lake, brought a lusty croc within 10 feet of my patio where I was enjoying a morning cup of coffee-I froze, it froze but did this open mouth snarl- and I went straight to Home Depot to put up a fence. After talking to Fish and Game department and doing research, I learned about crocodile habits. I finally understood why none of my neighbors swam in the lake and why my neighbors said to only walk the pets on a leash in the yard. Here in the Riviera Nayarit, two springs past a 12 year old boy lost part of an arm when playing in La Colonia even though the river has a danger, crocodile sign posted.
Mexican Crocodiles are ambush hunters and opportunists. They swim, usually on the surface with eyes and nostrils above the water line and boost their body with the help of their strong tail. The nostrils and eyes of the crocodiles are located at the top of the head so it can breathe and see while swimming, staying almost invisible until the final moment when it performs a surprise attack, using their main weapon, their powerful jaws to deliver the deadly croc bite. A prehistoric-looking creature, it is distinguishable from its cousin, the American alligator, by its longer, thinner snout, its lighter color, and two long teeth on the lower jaw that are visible when its mouth is closed.
Despite being chiefly a freshwater species that likes densely forested habitats with a lot of cover, Morelet’s crocodile do exist in brackish coastal waters and the grassy savannas of the Yucatan Peninsula as well. Crocodiles are mostly semi aquatic animals that spend a great deal of time in water, but also need to be on land part of the day. Depending on the species, crocodiles can be found in rivers, estuaries, coastal regions and even on open sea. The male Mexican crocodile can reach a length of 4.3 meters (14 feet), while the female is significantly smaller.. Juveniles are bright yellow with some black bands. The juvenile Mexican crocodile feeds chiefly on small fish and invertebrates, e.g. insects that can be found in or near the water. As the crocodile grows larger it gradually expands it diet to include animals such as mammals, larger fish, birds, reptiles, and aquatic snails. Larger crocodiles are known to prey on young crocodiles. The Mexican crocodile is a skilled hunter but may also scavenge when given the opportunity.
The fastest way by which most croc species can move is a sort of “belly run”, where the body moves like a snake, listing sideways with the legs paddling away frenetically while the tail whips back and forth. When “belly running” crocodiles can reach speeds up to 10 or 11 km/h (about 7 mph), and often go faster if they are sliding down muddy banks. Other form of movement is their “high walk”, where the body is elevated above the ground. Despite not having the same mobility as some of their ancestors had, there have been recorded crocodiles that can run on land at speeds of up to 17 km/h, according to Cocodilefacts website. Keep these facts in mind as if you have a chance encounter with a croc, you probably aren’t going to be able to out run it.
During the spring breeding season the female Mexican croc will usually build a protecting mound nest near the water that is roughly 1 meter high and 3 meters wide ( 3ft x 9 ft), but some females have been observed creating nests on floating vegetation instead. Crocodiles are oviparous (they reproduce by eggs that are deposited outside the mothers body) and are the only reptiles that exhibit true parental care. Thus, most of the crocodiles build nests, with heaps of soil or plant debris while other species of crocodiles dig burrows on the banks of rivers or beaches. Inside the nest, 20-45 eggs are laid before the rainy season starts.
The female, and sometimes the male, remains nearby to protect the eggs and then the young crocs from predators. Before the hatching of the eggs, the offspring emits vocalizations (sounds), to which the mother responds by digging up the top of the nest to assist the exit of eggs and then holding the newborn in her mouth takes them to the water, protecting them for weeks or months after. Many animals prey on Mexican croc hatchlings, including turtles, snakes and birds; raccoons are fond of digging up the nests and devouring the eggs. Juvenile Mexican crocodiles usually seek densely covered environments where they can stay hidden from predators until they’ve grown large enough to ward off attacks.
During the rainy season the Mexican crocodile becomes much more widely distributed than during the dry season, since the flooding makes it easier for the crocodile to seek out new environments. During the dry season, adult specimens are known to dig out burrow to aestivate in. While Mexican crocodiles in zoos have lived 80 years, in the wild the life expectancy is about 55 years.
In Riviera Nayarit there are two crocodile sanctuaries (cocodrilario) that I know of: one is south of Bucerias and the other is north of San Blas on the San Cristobal river. Look at the above photo of a tourist at one of the croc sanctuaries holding a baby-see if you don’t think it’s crazy after I relate my eyewitness account. I attended a Florida Fish and Game Wildlife Expo shortly before relocating to Mexico. Of course I had to see the baby croc exhibit, which had semi-circle rows of spectator seats that were occupied by elementary age children. Because of my hearing disability, I was standing near the speaker, a wildlife biologist who held a juvenile croc just like in the photo.
He was walking along the row as he explained crocodile needs and habitat, and just as he reached me, he told the audience, “Don’t harm crocodiles, crocs are our FRIENDS!” Just when he said friends, the baby swiveled his head and chomped down on the man’s thumb with a gush of blood! As he turned his back so the kids wouldn’t see what was happening, he smoothly told the crowd to move along to other exhibits. I had a lightweight sweater draped over my arm so I threw it over the croc/bleeding hand- the critter would not open its mouth! Fortunately, there was an ambulance with EMTs on site, so I hustled the biologist who was feeling the pain over to receive medical attention. The last I saw of the pair getting into the ambulance, the croc was still locked onto the man’s thumb- I never found out if they had to kill the baby in order to retrieve and reattach his thumb. The morale of the story is that a wild animal is going to act like a wild animal, no matter how small and seemingly innocent. Some photo ops are just not worth the risk.
Besides the crocodile’s razor sharp teeth and powerful jaw, when the hormones are raging the usually reticent reptile is going to fight rather than flee. Just remember that during the rut season the crocodiles are roaming, oblivious to humans, in their search for love.