It’s time to learn all about your friendly neighborhood crocodile.
Crocodilians (alligators, crocodiles and gharials) are tender, caring moms and dads, not dumb at all (some hunt cooperatively in groups) and have more to fear from humans who have devastated their numbers through hunting, pollution and rampant habitat destruction (dams, wetland conversion and development), than we have to fear from them.
Such are the insights gained in the “Crocs: Ancient Predators in a Modern World” exhibit that opens Saturday at the American Museum of Natural History.
Incidentally — all those stories about alligators in the sewers of NYC and Florida that emerge from latrines?
They’re a crock, according to museum scientists, who aver that the reptiles have not adapted to our crusty sewer pipes, much less NY temperatures.
“The only ones to emerge from a toilet were ones being flushed down,” unsuccessfully, said Mark Norell, chair of the paleontology division and curator of the show.
That said, the hardy reptiles have adapted — hybridizing in the Caribbean, when females are forced inland by development into the territories of other species with whom they breed, and eking out an existence in conditions far from ideal.
The reason you’re watching filmed discoveries of giant alligators in your social media feed is because of hard-won protections from their major predator.
“Alligators were hunted almost to extinction,” said Norell. “It’s been almost 20 years since hunting bans went into effect, so we are seeing really big animals for the first time in 20 years now.”
Crocodiles have “an amazing ability to resist infections,” and scientists are studying antimicrobial peptides in critically endangered Siamese crocodiles in hope that discoveries could benefit the development of antibiotics for humans, said Evon Hekkala, a research associate in the Museum’s Department of Herpetology.
Hekkala has worked in communities in Madagascar and Africa that revere and even worship the animals so many of us revile.
There are people in Madagascar that “feed the crocs every day,” not unlike we feed ducks, she noted. In ancient times, while Europeans were determining if women were witches by binding them and tossing them in water to see if they sank, Malagasies forced suspected criminals to cross a croc-infested river: If the suspect was consumed, he was presumed guilty.
The exhibit includes live crocodiles and baby alligators (all behind glass), crocodile fossils (giants of the past feasted on dinosaurs), dioramas, films and a range of content that puts crocs in evolutionary, anthropological and biological context.
Other tidbits? Alligators are being studied in hopes that the stem cells in their jaws – which can grow dozens of sets of teeth – might give dentists clues on how to regenerate teeth in humans.
“Super dad” crocs that allow up to 1,000 young climb and bask on their heads protect not just their own progeny, but hatchlings fathered by other males. And a “crunch capacity” display reveals that a croc’s jaw can exert up to 250,000 pounds of pressure per square inch while permitting visitors test their own muscular strength against it.
While the biggest threat to these magnificent reptiles is our own ever-expanding human population, and while crocs are not as lethal (or as big) as certain B-movies would have us believe, about 100 people a year are killed by salt water crocodiles in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.
“Don’t go swimming with the crocodiles!” exclaimed George Amato, director of the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. “It’s a really bad idea.”
If you go:
“Crocs” runs daily from 10 a.m. to 5:45 from May 28 to Jan. 2, 2017. The Museum is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Tickets to Crocs, which includes general Museum admission, are: $27 (adults), $22 (students/seniors), $16 (children 2-12).