Tag Archives: invasive species

Arthropods vs. Cane Toads

Cane toads are toxic because their bodies are loaded with cardiac glycosides, deadly toxins that can stop a predator’s heart. Because the toads are non-native in Australia, the native Australian carnivores aren’t adapted to dealing with them. For some, this is very bad news: freshwater crocodiles, monitor lizards, and pythons have all experienced population declines since the introduction of cane toads in 1985 (Smith and Phillips 2006).

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A cane toad. Photo by Sam Fraser-Smith, licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Not all is lost, however. It turns out that cardiac glycosides are only toxic to a very narrow group of animals: vertebrates. Predatory insects, arachnids, and other invertebrates have no trouble at all with the poison. Furthermore, a study published earlier this year (Cabrera-Guzmán et al. 2015) revealed that many are more than capable of tackling amphibian prey.

Cane toads start their lives as tadpoles, small and innocent, but plenty toxic enough to kill a hungry frog or fish. In Australia, some of their top predators are giant water bugs and water scorpions. Both are insects (not scorpions) that use tube-like mouthparts to inject acid and digestive enzymes into their prey, dissolving them from the inside out. When the tadpole’s innards are sufficiently liquefied, the insects slurp them up like an amphibian milkshake.

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A water scorpion lying in wait for prey. Photo by N. Sloth, licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.

A young dragonfly's mouthparts. Photo by Siga, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

A young dragonfly’s mouthparts. Photo by Siga, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Dragonfly larvae are also aquatic and predatory, but instead of using acid, they have extendable mouthparts. These are built like the robotic arm on an automatic garbage truck, but less cumbersome and more of a surgical, spring-loaded instrument of death. Most dragonfly larvae eat other insects, like mosquito larvae, but the largest species can easily overpower a small fish or tadpole.

Diving beetles join in the fun. Their mouthparts are less exciting, more like a typical beetle’s with sharp, biting mandibles. What makes them special is speed: their bodies are constructed like those of sea turtles. Like sea turtles, diving beetles are hard-shelled, streamlined, and aquadynamic. Unlike sea turtles, diving beetles use this form to swim after tadpoles that aren’t quite fast enough to escape.

A diving beetle, waiting for tadpoles to swim by. Photo by N. Sloth, licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.

A diving beetle, waiting for tadpoles to swim by. Photo by N. Sloth, licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.

A diving beetle larva with tadpole prey. Photo by Gilles San Martin, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

A diving beetle larva with tadpole prey. Photo by Gilles San Martin, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Diving beetle larvae are just as fierce, and they too have been observed feeding on cane toad tadpoles. Unlike their parents, larvae are long-bodied, with curved, needle-like jaws which they use to inject digestive enzymes into their prey (like the water bugs).

Any cane toad tadpoles that survive this massacre can metamorphose into toadlets, but until they reach their adult size (4-6 inches) they are still at the mercy of their invertebrate predators.

Experiments and observations in the field (Cabrera-Guzmán et al. 2015) have revealed that crayfish are efficient predators of eggs, tadpoles, toadlets, and even adult toads. Australia is home to 151 species of crayfish, including several of the largest species on earth. The spiny crayfish (Euastacus) in particular, some of which can grow to more than a foot in length, prey not only on toadlets but also on full-sized, adult cane toads.

A Lamington blue spiny crayfish (Euastacus sulcatus). Photo by Tatters, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

A Lamington blue spiny crayfish (Euastacus sulcatus). Photo by Tatters, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

There are, believe it or not, spiders that specialize in running out over the surface of the water to snatch aquatic insects, tadpoles, and small fish. They are the fishing spiders (large ones are sometimes called dock spiders). Experiments have shown that when fishing spiders inhabit a pond, up to 1 in every 4 tadpoles ultimately becomes spider food (Cabrera-Guzmán et al. 2015).

A fishing spider, ready for a meal. Photo by Patrick Coin, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

A fishing spider, ready for a meal. Photo by Patrick Coin, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Finally, ants. In the cane toad’s native range of tropical Latin America, meat ants are a major predator. When a toad is attacked, it often stays still, relying on poison for protection. Ants take advantage of this strategy, swarming over the toad’s body and stinging it to death with poisons of their own. Meat ants (Iridomyrmex) and their relatives also live in Australia, and they have been seen dragging the dismembered remains of cane toads back to their nests.

Meat ants taking down a cicada nymph. Photo by jjron, licensed under GFDL 1.2.

Meat ants taking down a cicada nymph. Photo by jjron, licensed under GFDL 1.2.

I’m sorry to say giant centipedes did not make the list of cane toad predators in Australia, but I should mention that the Caribbean giant centipede (Scolopendra alternans) has been observed to prey on native cane toads (Carpenter and Gillingham 1984).

Whether bird-eating spiders, bat-snatching centipedes, or tadpole-chasing water bugs, invertebrates that prey on vertebrates are always fascinating. It’s more common than you might think! I’ll conclude by mentioning Epomis, an unusual genus of ground beetles. Both the beetle larvae and adults are specialist amphibian-eaters, and tackle frogs and toads many times their own size.

Epomis beetles attacking various European amphibians. Photos from Wizen and Gasith (2011), licensed under CC BY 3.0.

Epomis beetles attacking various European amphibians. Photos from Wizen and Gasith (2011), licensed under CC BY 3.0.

I won’t say any more, since Epomis expert Gil Wizen has already written a fantastic blog post about these beetles, complete with videos of predation in action! I encourage you to check it out here.

Cited:

Cabrera-Guzman E., M.R. Crossland, and R. Shine. 2015. Invasive cane toads as prey for native arthropod predators in tropical Australia. Herpetological Monographs 29(1): 28-39.

Carpenter C.C. and J.C. Gillingham. 1984. Giant centipede (Scolopendra alternans) attacks marine toad (Bufo marinus). Caribbean Journal of Science 20: 71-72.

Smith J.G. and B.L. Phillips. 2006. Toxic tucker: the potential impact of cane toads on Australian reptiles. Pacific Conservation Biology 12(1): 40-49.

Wizen G. and A. Gasith. 2011. Predation of amphibians by carabid beetles of the genus Epomis found in the central coastal plain of Israel. ZooKeys 100: 181-191.

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Crocodiles and Cane Toads

You can see them from a helicopter: the white, bloated bellies of dead crocodiles, limply floating down the Victoria River. Australian freshwater crocodiles live hard lives, and most hatchlings are quickly eaten by fish, herons, frogs, turtles, or adult crocodiles. By the time they reach adulthood, at more than 7 feet long, they’ve already proven themselves to be the toughest reptiles around, so finding dead ones didn’t used to be common. Starting in 2002 that began to change (Letnic et al. 2002). Bodies started turning up, floating on their backs, by the hundreds. In their stomachs, researchers found the culprit: cane toads.

Cane toads, an invasive species in Australia, are extremely toxic. Their skin and organs are filled with cardiac glycosides, molecules that induce heart failure. Pets that eat them often die. So do a few humans, who lick the toads hoping to experience the hallucinogenic effects* of toad poison.

A dead freshwater crocodile, after eating a cane toad. Photo by Adam Britton, used with permission.

A dead freshwater crocodile, after eating a cane toad. Photo by Adam Britton, used with permission.

The toads’ natural predators, to varying degrees, have evolved to handle toad poison (also called bufotoxin). Examples include certain army ants and the cat-eyed snakes, which eat the toads and their tadpoles with ease. Even outside the toads’ native range (tropical Latin America), predators are often able to tolerate them because they have already adapted to the toxins of their own local toads.

Australia has a special problem: the country has no native toads. None at all. Since the cane toads’ introduction, scientists have observed dramatic population declines in predatory reptiles, from monitor lizards to pythons to crocodiles. These reptiles are not adapted to living with toads: they don’t instinctively leave toads alone, and when they venture eat one, death by poison is often the result.

Australia is home to two crocodile species. The smaller of the two is the freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni), which lives in ponds and the upper reaches of rivers, away from the northern coastline. At 7-10 feet in length, this species is not dangerous to humans unless provoked, instead subsisting on a diet of fish, amphibians, small mammals, and the like.

A freshwater crocodile. Photo by Richard Fisher, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A freshwater crocodile. Photo by Richard Fisher, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The larger is the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), males of which are the largest crocodiles on earth, reaching lengths up to 20 feet. Although they often live alongside (and sometimes prey upon) freshwater crocodiles, saltwater crocodiles truly thrive in the more coastal habitats: estuaries, mangrove swamps, and sea-bound river deltas.

Both species are opportunists, and will happily snap up a toad if given the opportunity.

A saltwater crocodile. Photo by Lip Kee Yap, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

A saltwater crocodile. Photo by Lip Kee Yap, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Dr.’s James Smith and Ben Phillips (2006) wanted to find out just how dangerous cane toads were to Australia’s native predators. They harvested the toxins from cane toads and then administered them to various Australian reptiles, including predatory lizards, pythons, and both crocodile species.

When scientists want to know how deadly a toxin is, they calculate LD50. The LD50, or median lethal dose, is simply the amount of poison that will on average cause the death of 50% of victims.

The LD50 depends both on the toxin and on the animal that ingests it. A rat, for example, has a 50% chance of death if it drinks 192 milligrams of caffeine for every kilogram that the rat weighs. Rats typically weigh about 1/3 of a kilogram, so the total LD50 for caffeine is 1/3 of 192, or 64 mg. More toxic substances have lower LD50’s, since it takes less poison to cause death. Caffeine isn’t that toxic. Aren’t numbers fun?

The mangrove monitor, a predator easily poisoned by cane toads. Photo by Jebulon, in public domain.

The mangrove monitor, a predator easily poisoned by cane toads. Photo by Jebulon, in public domain.

Smith and Phillips calculated that the LD50 for bufotoxin fed to freshwater crocodiles was about 2.76 milligrams. Cane toads, which can weigh up to 2 kilograms, are perfectly capable of killing freshwater crocodiles that eat them.

Here’s the odd thing: while freshwater crocodiles often died as a result of cane toad poisoning, none of the saltwater crocodiles did. To see if the poison was affecting them in other ways, the scientists conducted athletic tests — if the crocodile couldn’t run as fast after poisoning, that was interpreted as a sign the poison was harming the reptile. While the freshwater crocodiles slowed down after ingesting bufotoxin, saltwater crocodiles were just as energetic before as after their toxic meal.

Are saltwater crocodiles immune to bufotoxin? It’s hard to say. The scientists wanted to kill as few crocodiles as possible, and they didn’t have enough crocodiles on hand to test much higher doses. Perhaps extremely high doses of bufotoxin would kill saltwater crocodiles, but the data is lacking.

What we do know is that saltwater crocodiles are much more resistant to cane toad poison than freshwater crocodiles. There are two potential reasons for this, and the most obvious is size. Saltwater crocodiles, males of which can weigh more than 2,000 pounds, are the largest crocodilians and the largest non-marine predators in the world. An adult saltwater crocodile simply cannot eat a toad large enough to reach a lethal dose.

A saltwater crocodile. Photo by fvanrenterghem, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

A saltwater crocodile. Photo by fvanrenterghem, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Smaller crocodiles are more vulnerable. In 2013, an expedition to remote areas of northern Australia revealed that some populations of pygmy freshwater crocodiles, which only grow to 5 feet, have suffered declines upwards of 60% due to toad poisoning (Britton et al. 2013). The same research team, led by Dr. Adam Britton, is trying to raise money with a crowd-funding campaign to return to these remote sites, to study and help protect pygmy crocodiles. I strongly encourage you to visit the crowd-funding site here, as Britton has prepared a terrific video on pygmy crocodiles and the unique challenges they face.

A pygmy freshwater crocodile. Photo via Adam Britton, used with permission.

An adult pygmy freshwater crocodile. Photo by Adam Britton, used with permission.

The saltwater crocodiles in the Smith and Phillips study were not even close to 2,000 pounds — they were subadults, less than three feet long and closer to five pounds. So a few milligrams of cane toad poison should have killed at least some of them. Instead the walked away un-fazed, without so much as a skip in their gait.

Why? It may have to with the two crocodiles’ evolutionary history. In addition to being the largest, saltwater crocodiles are some of the widest-ranging** crocodiles, distributed from eastern India through Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and New Guinea. Because they can live in saltwater, they have been able to colonize many Pacific Islands (e.g., the Solomons) that are out of reach of other crocodilians.

A cane toad. Photo by Sam Fraser-Smith, licensed under CC BY 4.0.

A cane toad. Photo by Sam Fraser-Smith, licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Throughout their range they encounter a tremendous variety of potential prey. Saltwater crocodiles are not picky eaters, and have been observed feeding on fish (including sharks), frogs, lizards, snakes, turtles, crabs, snails, octopuses (during marine forays), deer, monkeys, pigs, cows, rats, otters, rabbits, porcupines, kangaroos, squirrels, wild cats, jackals, emus, geese, miscellaneous birds, and bats that fly just a little too close to the water.

Also, toads.

Even though Australian crocodiles never encounter toads, they have almost exactly the same DNA as their relatives in Asia and Indonesia. Perhaps they have inherited a tolerance for bufotoxin, while the freshwater crocodile, alone and isolated in Australia, has not.

Freshwater crocodiles might seem like the evolutionary dopes in this story, but there is hope for them. While some populations have been hit hard, others appear to be unaffected, perhaps because cane toads tend to avoid the habitats where freshwater crocodiles do most of their hunting (Somaweera et al. 2012). Research (like the pygmy crocodile project) is continuing to shed light on where cane toads are affecting crocodiles the most, why, and what can be done to protect them.

Finally, crocodilians are more intelligent than most reptiles. Studies with captive specimens have shown that after just a few encounters, hatchling freshwater crocodiles are able to quickly learn to avoid cane toads. Back in the field, some populations of crocodiles are already showing signs of learning, as cane toads are attacked less often and less enthusiastically than native frogs (Somaweera et al. 2011). As with humans, the best hope for freshwater crocodiles is in the next generation.

A young freshwater crocodile. Photo by Mike Peel, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

A young freshwater crocodile. Photo by Mike Peel, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

*Don’t even think about it.

**Saltwater crocodiles, while secure in Australia, are endangered in Southeast Asia, where many populations have gone extinct.

Cited:

Britton A.R.C., E.K. Britton, and C.R. McMahon. 2013. Impact of a toxic invasive species on freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni) populations in upstream escarpments. Wildlife Research 40: 312-317.

Letnic M., J.K. Webb, and R. Shine. 2008. Invasive cane toads (Bufo marinus) cause mass mortality of freshwater crocodiles (Crocodylus johnstoni) in tropical Australia. Biological Conservation 141: 1773-1782.

Smith J.G. and B.L. Phillips. 2006. Toxic tucker: the potential impact of cane toads on Australian reptiles. Pacific Conservation Biology 12(1): 40-49.

Somaweera R., J.K. Webb, G.P. Brown, and R. Shine. 2011. Hatchling Australian freshwater crocodiles rapidly learn to avoid toxic invasive cane toads. Behaviour 148(4): 501-517.

Somaweera R., R. Shine, J. Webb, T. Dempster, and M. Letnic. 2012. Why does vulnerability to toxic invasive cane toads vary among populations of Australian freshwater crocodiles? Animal Conservation 16(1): 86-96.

Endangered, Bird-eating Centipedes of Mauritius

Can a centipede really be endangered? Of course!

Centipedes don’t get much love, even from each other. They are solitary, irritable, fiercely cannibalistic, and arguably some of the most widely hated animals on earth. I know many biologists who would gladly handle a snake or tarantula, but shudder at the thought of a giant centipede creeping up their arm.

An Indopacific centipede, making good use of a hole in the wall. Photo by Thomas Brown, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

An Indopacific centipede, making good use of a hole in the wall. Photo by Thomas Brown, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I never begrudge people for being scared of centipedes. They are objectively frightening: many-legged, venomous, fast-moving, and secretive. In the rural tropics, a painful bite from a giant centipede is a very real possibility. But none of this means they can’t be endangered, put at risk of extinction either by natural circumstance or by human activity.

Unsurprisingly, very few centipedes have ever been studied from a conservation-oriented perspective. Most of the time, there simply isn’t the funding, public interest, or lack of squeamishness to make that kind of research happen. There are, however, exceptions. Today I’m going to tell you about one: the giant centipedes of Mauritius and Rodrigues.

Mauritius, Rodrigues, and their satellites form a collection of tiny islands in the Indian Ocean, just a few thousand miles east of Madagascar. Like most islands they have a long, sad history of extinctions wrought by over-hunting, invasive species, and habitat destruction. The dodo bird, native to Mauritius, was one of the first victims.

Mauritius.png

Mauritius, in panoramic view. Photo by Clément Larher, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The two main islands are home to two species of giant centipede, the blue-legged (Scolopendra morsitans) and the Indopacfic (Scolopendra subspinipes) centipedes*. Both species are incredibly efficient predators, and with body lengths of 8 inches or more, they are more than capable of tackling large prey such as mice. On Mauritius, staple fare include house geckos and cockroaches, but they also take day-old chicks from their nests when opportunity strikes (Lewis et al. 2010). The Indopacific centipede can even swim, undulating side-to-side while holding its head above the surface like a crocodile (Lewis 1980).

Despite their size, venom, and general badassness, giant centipedes are prey for many larger animals. On Mauritius, they form 80% of the diet of feral cats that roam the island by night. The cats are apparently nimble (and daring) enough to tear apart the centipedes without getting bitten.

An Indopacific centipede from China. Photo by Thomas Brown, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

An Indopacific centipede from China. Photo by Thomas Brown, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Even in the face of predation by cats, giant centipedes remained abundant until 1997, when a new invasive species came into the picture. That species was the musk shrew (Suncus murinus), introduced from India. A smaller shrew might become prey for a centipede, but the musk shrew is the largest in the world, reaching a length of 6 inches or more.

An 8-inch-long centipede is still a formidable adversary, but the shrews were used to encountering giant centipedes in their native range (as it happens, the Indopacific centipede also lives in India). They have made short work of centipede populations, which are now greatly reduced (Lewis et al. 2010). The Indopacific centipede is now found on Rodrigues, but no longer on Mauritius, while the blue-legged centipede is still found on both islands.

Mauritius and its satellite islands. From Lewis et al. (2010), licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Mauritius and its satellite islands. From Lewis et al. (2010), licensed under CC BY 4.0.

I am not about to launch into a passionate defense of blue-legged and Indopacific centipedes. As I said before, both species are abundant in tropical habitats all over the world, from Indonesia to the Caribbean. For all we know the centipedes themselves are invasive, dancing with cats and shrews on the graves of long-gone native species. Instead this article is about another giant, a third centipede, gone from Mauritius but still clinging to life on Serpent Island.

Serpent Island is a satellite of Mauritius, uninhabited by humans and with an area less than 100 acres. There is very little vegetation or soil there, and bare rock dominates the surface. In the absence of humans or large predators, sea birds thrive, especially sooty terns which nest by the thousands on open ground.

They share the space with centipedes — not Indopacific or blue-legged, but Serpent Island giant centipedes (Scolopendra abnormis), which are found on one other satellite island (Round Island) and nowhere else on earth — not even Mauritius. The centipedes are abundant on Serpent Island, with roughly 12 individuals per square meter. If centipedes frighten you, don’t plan your next vacation here.

During the day centipedes hide beneath rocky slabs and underground, away from the light and from watchful, easily enraged mother birds. Terns are active during the day, flying from land to sea and back again, gathering fish for their hungry chicks. With all the traffic, a centipede is better off staying out of sight.

A sooty tern. Photo by Duncan Wright, in public domain.

A sooty tern. Photo by Duncan Wright, in public domain.

By night the terns are less wary. Snakes, which would normally prey on tern chicks, are absent from the island, probably driven out soon after the arrival of European explorers. Without the competition, centipedes have risen to take their place. Wandering over the rocks, a centipede uses smell and touch to locate a nest, grab hold of a chick, and sink in its venom-laden fangs. More than any so-called bird-eating tarantula, the Serpent Island centipede is a true bird-eater. In captivity, they can survive for several years on a diet of chick legs (Lewis et al. 2010).

The taste for bird meat is probably a recent acquisition — Serpent Island centipedes most likely colonized the island only a few million years ago. They would have arrived from Mauritius, suggesting the larger island had a population of Serpent Island centipedes before they were driven to extinction by the introduced shrews, cats, and perhaps larger centipedes.

The Serpent Island centipede is classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN 2012). This means the species is  “considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.” It is one of 10 potentially threatened centipedes on the IUCN Red List (of 3,300 total centipede species worldwide). So far, none have been given legal protection.

Centipede snacks. Photo by Duncan Wright, in public domain.

Centipede food. Photo by Duncan Wright, in public domain.

The bad news is that, if shrews or cats or rats were to be introduced to Serpent Island, the entire ecosystem would collapse. Invasive predators would quickly eat both chicks and centipedes, leaving Serpent Island a bare rock in the middle of the ocean, with a few tufts of grass and the occasional cockroach.

The good news is that centipedes are abundant in their last remaining habitats, with an estimated population of 10-15,000. Serpent Island is remote and protected, and biologists are pretty much the only visitors, so it is unlikely shrews will ever get there. The future of Serpent Island’s bird-eating centipedes is secure, for now.

Reminder: there are still 6 days left to donate to Dr. Adam Britton’s crowdfunding campaign to study threatened pygmy crocodiles in Australia! I’ve donated, and I encourage you to so if you think pygmy crocodiles, which you can read about here, are awesome, which of course they are. There are some amazing prizes for donors, including crocodile-themed artwork and jewelry!

*These species normally go by the common names Tanzanian giant (blue-legged) and Vietnamese giant (Indopacific). However, both are extremely wide-ranging in tropical habitats all over the world, including Hawaii where they have been introduced by humans (Shelley et al. 2014). To reduce confusion I used alternative common names.

Cited:

IUCN. 2012. IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria: Version 3.1. Second edition. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK: IUCN. iv + 32pp.

Lewis J.G.E., P. Daszak, C.G. Jones, J.D. Cottingham, E.Wenman, and A. Maljkovic. 2010. Field observations on three scolopendrid centipedes from Mauritius and Rodrigues (Indian Ocean) (Chilopoda: Scolopendromorpha). International Journal of Myriapodology 3: 123-137.

Lewis J.G.E. 1980. Swimming in the centipede Scolopendra subspinipes Leach (Chilopoda, Scolopendromorpha). Entomologists Monthly Magazine 116: 219-220.

Shelley R.M., W.D. Perreira, and D.A. Yee. 2014. The centipede Scolopendra morsitans L., 1758, new to the Hawaiian fauna, and potential representatives of the “S. subspinipes Leach, 1815, complex” (Scolopendromorpha: Scolopendridae: Scolopendrinae). Insecta Mundi 338: 1-4.

Scaly and Adorable: Australia’s Pygmy Crocodiles

Yesterday I wrote about crocodile evolution, and some of their amazing extinct relatives (here). I wrote about them partly because prehistoric crocodylomorphs are amazing, and that’s as good a reason as any. But it was also to prove a point: modern crocodilians, 23 species all with similar appearances, might seem like ancient members of a group that has hardly changed at all. This is not so. Crocodilians are instead the only survivors of a vast and hugely diverse lineage of animals, most of which looked nothing like the crocodilians alive today.

Like the finned sea-crocodiles of the Jurassic, modern crocodilians are an off-shoot, just one branch in a massive crocodylomorph tree. Unlike the sea-crocodiles, by some combination of chance and adaptation, modern crocodilians have managed to avoid extinction (so far). Unlike the sea-crocodiles, crocodilians are still evolving.

NileCrocodile--Etiopia-Omo-River-Valley-01.jpg

A Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus). Photo by Gianfranco Gori, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Dr. Adam Britton, a world-renowned crocodilian biologist, points out that his favorite animals are far more advanced than they look. “I do see them as highly refined survivors of their ancient lineage. The analogy I use when talking about croc evolution is to compare modern crocodiles to Ferraris: they might superficially look and function similarly to a Model T Ford, but they are so much more refined.”

One of Dr. Britton’s favorite species is the Australian freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni), the smaller of Australia’s two native crocodiles. Freshwater crocodiles typically reach 7-10 feet in length — impressive, but dwarfed by the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), males of which can grow to over 20 feet. The two species share Australia, but because saltwater crocodiles are larger and fiercely territorial, freshwater crocodiles are often relegated to sub-optimal habitats, such as smaller rivers and ponds.

A young freshwater crocodile. Photo by Mike Peel, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

A young freshwater crocodile. Photo by Mike Peel, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Such habitats include the remote, rocky upstream gorges of the Victoria and Liverpool Rivers (Webb 1985). Here, and at a few other sites in northern Australia, unique freshwater crocodiles live in relative isolation from humans and saltwater crocodiles. Unfortunately, they also live without much food — small streams mean few fish, which make for malnourished crocodiles.

So they evolved. Over time, the crocodiles became smaller to make up for a poor diet, and now they are truly tiny, with the largest reaching 5 feet in length. They became the pygmy crocodiles, small enough that you could (unadvisedly) pick one up and carry it around with you.

A pygmy freshwater crocodile. Photo via Adam Britton, used with permission.

A pygmy freshwater crocodile. Photo by Adam Britton, used with permission.

Stunted growth is one thing — any crocodile, fed a poor diet, will fail to reach its maximum size potential. Pygmy crocodiles are different. They have been growing this way for enough time that they are now genetically predisposed to small size. If you took a pygmy croc from the wild and fed it the same diet as a normal freshwater crocodile, the former would still be much smaller than its cousin.

A pygmy crocodile. Photo by Adam Britton, used with permission.

A pygmy crocodile. Photo by Adam Britton, used with permission.

Pygmy crocodiles aren’t quite distinct enough to be classified as their own species — yet. They haven’t been isolated for very long, so for now they are still considered an unusual population of freshwater crocodiles. They may interbreed with larger crocodiles, in which case they will never fully separate. A more exciting possibility is that they may continue to evolve and diverge in isolation, in which case they may someday become genetically unique enough to constitute a new species.

There is another possibility: pygmy crocodiles may go extinct before they get a chance to evolve any further. Although their habitat is isolated and relatively secure, they are threatened by invasive cane toads, introduced to Australia in 1935. A hungry crocodile will happily snap up a toad, but because cane toads are extremely toxic, they are often the crocodile’s last meal.

Curiosity killed this crocodile -- it tried to eat a poisonous cane toad. Photo by Adam Britton, used with permission.

Curiosity killed this crocodile — it tried to eat a poisonous cane toad. Photo by Adam Britton, used with permission.

Pygmy crocodiles, because they are so small, are especially vulnerable to the poison. Although some populations have been unaffected (Doody et al. 2014). others have declined in abundance by more than 60% since the toads’ introduction (Britton et al. 2013). Why some populations are more vulnerable than others is one of many crucial questions that remain unanswered (Somaweera et al. 2012).

A cane toad. Photo by Sam Fraser-Smith, licensed under CC BY 4.0.

A cane toad. Photo by Sam Fraser-Smith, licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Dr. Britton is leading an effort to study pygmy crocodiles in their natural habitat. The goals of his research are two-fold. First, he means to assess their wild populations to determine if the crocodiles might be endangered. Second, Britton and his team wish to collect DNA from the pygmy crocodiles, to better understand their evolutionary history, and their genetic relationship with larger freshwater crocodiles.

This is an achievable and worthy project, but an ambitious one. Field work is always costly, but pygmy crocodiles live in isolated, hard-to-reach places, and getting there requires use of a helicopter. Dr. Britton and his team have started a crowd-funding effort to raise funds to support pygmy crocodile research — I’ve donated, and if you think pygmy crocodiles are amazing, I strongly encourage you to do so as well. There are some great prizes for donors, including crocodile-themed artwork and jewelry!

You can learn more about the project at its crowd-funding site, here. On the website is a short video in which Dr. Britton discusses and handles pygmy crocodiles. They are positively adorable.*

If crocodiles are Ferraris, then pygmy crocodiles are Smart Cars — tiny and vulnerable, but awesome in an enticingly bizarre sort of way. Pygmy crocodiles are an evolutionary quirk, just like the prehistoric pelican-snouted crocodile Stomatosuchus, or the armadillo-backed Armadillosuchus, or the shark-tailed … you get the picture. There’s just one important difference: pygmy crocodiles are alive. We, as residents of a special time in the history of life, get to appreciate them for the amazing creatures that they are. Let’s try and keep it that way.

*The crocodiles, I mean. Although if you like listening to British scientists get super-duper excited about wildlife, it’ll be a happy three minutes for you.

A big thank you is owed to Dr. Britton, who graciously allowed me to use his images for this article. Once again, I encourage you to donate to his effort to study these amazing crocodiles. You can learn more about crocodilians at Dr. Britton’s encyclopedic and lavishly illustrated website here.

Cited:

Britton A.R.C., E.K. Britton, and C.R. McMahon. 2013. Impact of a toxic invasive species on freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni) populations in upstream escarpments. Wildlife Research 40: 312-317.

Doody J.S., P. Mayes, S. Clulow, D. Rhind, B. Green, C.M. Castellano, D. D’Amore, and C. Mchenry. 2014. Impacts of the invasive cane toad on aquatic reptiles in a highly modified ecosystem: the importance of replicating impact studies. Biological Invasions 16(11): 2303-2309.

Somaweera R., R. Shine, J. Webb, T. Dempster, and M. Letnic. 2012. Why does vulnerability to toxic invasive cane toads vary among populations of Australian freshwater crocodiles? Animal Conservation 16(1): 86-96.

Webb G.J.W. 1985. Survey of a pristine population of freshwater crocodiles in the Liverpool River, Arnhem Land, Australia. National Geographic Society Research Report 1979: 841-852