Gharial

Since next Saturday is Christmas Eve, I will be taking the day off of posting an article. Have a very merry Christmas!

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The gharial is a weird looking reptile living in southern Asia. These animals are easily recognizable from other crocodilians by their long, thin snout. This snout is also very toothy (it has over 100 teeth!), and it has a distinctive knob at the end. This knob is called a ghara, and only the males have one. The knob has this name because it resembles an Indian pot with the same name. Due to their long snout, gharials have been given the fitting nickname of long-nosed crocodile.

One thing you cannot tell from this picture is that these crocodilians have feet that are much more webbed than those of other crocodilians. This helps them get around better in the water, which they need because they are not good at moving on land. This is because they have weak legs, and they can’t even raise their whole body above the ground!

Adult gharials are usually dark brown or dark green on top with a yellow or white underside. The young ones are mostly lighter in color with darker stripes. Their color neutralizes as they get older to the color shown in the picture above. These reptiles are sometimes called gavials, which is thought to come from a misspelling of their real name.

There is one crocodilian that looks a lot like the gharial. Because it looks like one of these animals but isn’t, it is called the false gharial. The main difference between these species is that the false gharial has a shorter snout, and the males do not have the bulbous ghara.

Size

Gharials are some of the largest crocodilians in the world. The only species larger is the huge saltwater crocodile. Adult male gharials can grow up to 23 feet (7 m) long but are normally closer to 20 feet (6 m). The females are much smaller, averaging between 11.5 and 15 feet (3.5-4.5 m) long.

These reptiles also weigh a lot. They normally weigh about 400 pounds (180 kg), but they have been known to be as heavy as 1,500 pounds (680 kg)! This is much heavier than most polar bears are, and it is about half the weight of a normal car!

Diet

Since gharials are most at home in the water, their main food is one that also spends most of its time in the water. Fish. Occasionally they will eat water birds or carrion, but fish are by far their favorite meal. The juveniles are not able to catch fish as easily, so they will often eat insects, crustaceans, and small frogs instead.

There are two main strategies these crocodilians use for hunting fish. The first one is a sit-and-wait strategy, where they stay completely still in the same place until a fish swims right by them. Since their snouts are so thin, they can close them quickly around the fish, as the water provides little resistance against such a thin object.

The other strategy is normally referred to as “sweeping.” When doing this, the gharial will swing its snout back and forth through the water. It has very sensitive skin on its snout that can sense vibrations caused by fish. When a fish gets in the way of the swinging snout, it will quickly close its mouth, trapping the fish. Gharials love fish so much that they have been given the nickname fish-eating crocodile.

Habitat and range

The picture below shows the historical range of the gharial. They lived in several different countries in southern Asia, including India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Burma. These animals have a much smaller range than they used to have, and they only live in three river systems in two countries: Nepal and India. All three of the river systems they live in are tributaries of the Ganges river.

The previous section probably gives you a good idea of the habitat these crocodilians prefer. Since gharials are probably the most aquatic species of their type, they live only where there is plenty of water for them to swim in. They prefer to live in deep, calm areas of large rivers. They also like having sandy banks along the river’s edge, so they can have places for nesting.

Status and threats

The gharial is classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Redlist. This is just one step from Extinct in the Wild. The last time the number of these animals was counted was in 2006, when there were less than 200 adults in the wild! It is estimated that there are around 1,300 fish-eating crocodiles in the wild today with about 1,000 more being raised in zoos around the world.

Humans are the main threat gharials face. These crocodilians are hunted for their skin, meat, and eggs. They are also threatened by habitat destruction, as their habitats are modified for use in agriculture, fishing, or industry.

There are many natural threats these animals face as well. The adults are so large that they are top predators where they live, but the juveniles are much smaller and face many predators. These include rats, jackals, wild pigs, mongooses, and monitor lizards.

Reproduction and young

Gharial mating season takes place from November to January, which means it is happening right now! Males use their ghara to attract females. They do this by exhaling quickly, so a flap of skin on the lump buzzes loudly. They also hiss and slap their jaws against the water in order to attract mates.

When a female finds a mate she likes, they will start rubbing against each other. When she is ready to mate, she will raise her long snout into the air. They then submerge for about 30 minutes while mating.

A few months later, between March and May, the female makes a nest along the river bank and lays 30 to 60 eggs in it. The holes they dig as nests are about 20 inches (50 cm) deep and about 16 feet (5 m) from the edge of the river. They usually lay eggs at night. Some female gharials, probably the larger ones, are capable of laying up to 100 eggs each season!

The eggs are rather large. They can be 2.2 inches (5.5 cm) wide, and 3.3 inches (8.5 cm) long. They weigh about 5.5 ounces (156 g), which is about as much as a billiard ball.

It takes from 60 to 80 days for the young to hatch, and when they are ready, they call from inside their eggs, alerting their mother to come dig them out. For a few days after they hatch, the young are protected by their mother.

The females are able to mate for the first time around eight years of age, while the males take until they are 15. It is not until this time that they grow the ghara on the end of their snout. The only record of lifespan for these reptiles was from a captive specimen that was estimated to be 29 years old. There are rumors that they can live to be 100 years old, but these have not been confirmed.

Don’t forget to scroll down and comment your guess about what the animal for December 30th is!

Sources:

Photo credits:

  • Gharial – Jonathan Zander
  • Gharial range – Achim Raschka
  • Mystery animal – Alexandre Buisse
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