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Meet the Mighty Australian Saltwater Crocodile The Largest Living Reptile on Earth

Saltwater Crocodile on river bank

The Deadly APEX Hunters of Australia’s North

With their massive size and formidable jaws, saltwater crocodiles are the undisputed kings of Australia’s northern rivers and coastlines. Learn more about these apex predators that have thrived in Australia for millions of years.

Physical Characteristics

Saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus), also known as “salties,” are the largest living reptiles on earth. An adult male can reach up to 6-7 meters in length and weigh over 1,000 kg. Their skin is olive-green in color and covered in hardened scales and bony plates called osteoderms that act as armor. Distinctive pitted scales give them a rough, rugged appearance.

Saltwater crocodiles have a long, muscular tail that propels them powerfully through the water. Their short but broad snouts contain many large, pointed teeth used for gripping prey. Jaw muscles allow them to exert over 3,000 psi of bite force, giving saltwater crocodiles the strongest bite of any animal on the planet.

Habitat and Range

Saltwater crocodiles are found across northern Australia, from Rockhampton on the east coast to Broome on the west. Their range also extends throughout Southeast Asia, the India subcontinent, and parts of the western Pacific islands including Papua New Guinea.

These crocodiles mainly inhabit saline and brackish mangrove swamps, estuaries, deltas, lagoons, and lower stretches of rivers. They can also be found around coastal areas and sometimes venture far out to sea. Adults establish well-defined territories that can stretch over many miles.

Hunting and Diet

As opportunistic hunters, saltwater crocodiles will eat almost anything they can capture. Their main diet consists of fish, birds, mammals, and reptiles. Younger crocodiles eat smaller fare such as insects, crustaceans, and small reptiles or amphibians.

Once they reach adulthood, their massive size allows them to take on larger prey. Larger crocodiles have been known to eat dogs, wild pigs, goats, buffalo, sharks, and even other crocodiles. There are rare reports of very large males attacking humans and water buffalo.

Saltwater crocodiles are ambush predators and spend much time waiting patiently underwater for prey to approach. Their slit-like pupils allow excellent vision in low light. Special valves seal their ears and nostrils underwater. Crocodiles also use highly sensitive organs on their snout to detect vibrations in the water from potential prey. When prey draws near, they literally explode out of the water to seize it in their jaws before dragging it underwater to drown.

Reproduction

Mating occurs during the wet season between September and March when water levels are high. Males attract females by bellowing loudly and slapping their snouts in courtship displays. Receptive females will signal their compliance by exposing their snouts.

After mating, the female will dig a nest hole in sandy or muddy ground near the water. Between 40-60 eggs are laid which incubate for around 90 days before hatching. Baby crocodiles start calling from inside their eggs right before hatching. Hearing these calls, the female will carefully dig up the nest and carry the hatchlings one by one in her mouth down to the water.

The mother will continue guarding her young for up to 2 years until they are 1.5-2 meters long, protecting them from predators like birds, snakes, and even male crocodiles.

Behavior and Communication

Saltwater crocodiles are generally solitary and territorial, only coming together briefly for mating. Males establish and patrol their breeding territories, warding off rival males. They use vocal calls, splash displays, gland secretions, and scrape markings to advertise territory boundaries.

Though wary of humans, crocodiles can become conditioned to associate people with food from waste dumping by fishermen and campers. This can lead to dangerous behavior towards boats and fishermen. These ancient reptiles play a vital role as predators in aquatic ecosystems.

Threats and Conservation

Due to extreme hunting in the early 19th century and habitat loss over the past century, saltwater crocodile populations declined significantly. This prompted protected status and regulated harvesting programs which have helped populations recover. But illegal hunting and development still threaten their future.

There are estimated to be over 150,000 saltwater crocodiles in Australia, with the strongest populations in the Northern Territory which provides ideal tropical habitat. However, human-crocodile conflict poses challenges as settlements expand across the remote north.

The Future of Saltwater Crocodiles

Humans and crocodiles have coexisted in northern Australia for thousands of years. As communities grow, sustainable conservation policies balanced with public safety are needed. With awareness and caution, people can safely share the landscape with these ancient survivors. Their future relies on preserving habitat and preventing dangerous interactions between crocodiles and humans.

Key Facts

  • Can grow over 6 meters long and 1,000 kg
  • Worldwide distribution across northern Australia and Southeast Asia
  • Populations threatened by habitat loss and hunting
  • Excellent ambush predators with acute senses
  • Mothers protect hatchlings for their first 1-2 years
  • Males are highly territorial and aggressive
  • Require tropical habitats with warm year-round temperatures
  • Estimated 100,000+ in Australia, concentrated in Northern Territory
  • Listed as Vulnerable on IUCN Red List of endangered species

The very sight of a massive saltwater crocodile strikes both wonder and fear. By learning to coexist with these legendary animals, Australians can ensure their continued survival for ages to come.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many saltwater crocodiles are there in Australia?

There are estimated to be over 150,000 saltwater crocodiles in northern Australia today, with the largest populations found in the Northern Territory. Their numbers have recovered since hunting was banned in the 1970s.

What is the largest saltwater crocodile ever recorded?

The largest saltwater crocodile ever recorded was captured in the Ord River in Western Australia in 1958. It measured 6.4 meters (21 feet) long and weighed approximately 2,000 kg (4,400 lbs).

How far can a saltwater crocodile swim?

Saltwater crocodiles are excellent swimmers and can swim up to 600 km while migrating between river systems and out to sea. There have been recorded instances of crocodiles traveling over 1,000 km.

How long can a saltwater crocodile hold its breath underwater?

Saltwater crocodiles can hold their breath underwater for over an hour before needing to surface for air. They can also slow their heart rate down to just 2-3 beats per minute to conserve oxygen.

How fast can a saltwater crocodile move on land?

Saltwater crocodiles can briefly gallop at speeds over 10 mph on land over short distances. This allows them to launch explosive attacks from the water’s edge.

Do saltwater crocodiles attack sharks?

There are rare reports of large male crocodiles attacking and eating sharks up to 5 feet long. However, most often sharks and crocodiles avoid confrontation.

How long do saltwater crocodiles live?

Saltwater crocodiles are extremely long-lived, with lifespans typically between 70-100 years in the wild. Some individuals are estimated to have lived over 100 years.

Do crocodiles cry tears?

Yes – crocodiles produce tears but not for emotional reasons. Their tears help lubricate and protect their eyes from injury and flush out excess salt from special glands near their eyes.

Image Credit: Library & Archives NT. (1930). Crocodile hunters. Charles Micet Collection, PH0708/0065.

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