Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Facing the jaws of hell

              Odi gasped. "Look!" he cried. The water was bubbling like a kettle beginning to boil. "Something big is blowing down there!"
"Leviathan!" mouthed Joe, but no sound came out.
A brief silence, then, suddenly, from the depths, a huge head appeared, scaly and fierce. It leapt upwards through the ring of the cradle and its jaws opened wide, displaying jagged, terrifying teeth. The boys braced themselves against the wall, too afraid even to scream, while the beast writhed and twisted so as to get a grip on one of them.
"It's a crocodile!" yelled Odi. "Must be fifty feet long!"

       In September 2011, 100 villagers from Bunawan in the Philippines captured the biggest crocodile in the world.  At 21 feet long and weighting a scales-breaking ton, this fearsome beast could swallow three men in one go and was believed to have devoured at least one fisherman during its 20 year reign of terror throughout the Agusan river system.
       Residents in the area were hugely relieved to hear of the monster’s captivity, now destined to be spent as star attraction of a new eco-park and will no doubt bring the tourists flocking.
      Despite their ferocious reputation, these leathery beasts are fascinating to watch as they glide through the waters, sometimes reaching speeds of 25 miles per hour (40 km/hr) thanks to their flat, paddle-shaped tails and sheer agility. Crocodiles are pretty nifty on land too, bursting into short, rapid sprints that could give Usain Bolt a run for his money! And being able to stay under water for two or three hours at a time gives them an extra advantage over unsuspecting prey. 
       Nothing seems to faze them. The most dangerous of the species is Australia’s salt-water crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) which can grow up to 23 feet (7m) long and which views cattle, horses and buffalo as mere snacks, to be unceremoniously snatched from the water’s edge as they refresh themselves. Certainly, few animals escape from a crocodile’s sudden, lunging attack, followed by its merciless death-roll and eventual drowning.
      Some people believe the crocodile and the terrifying Leviathan as mentioned in the Bible Book of Job (chapter 41) are one and the same with its ‘frightful teeth round about’. Its powerful jaws have as many as 48 jagged, razor-sharp teeth that are continuously replaced throughout the creature’s lifespan, while a protruding fourth tooth in the lower jaw distinguishes a crocodile from its nearest relative, the alligator.
       No doubt about it, Leviathan is not to be messed with. Yet, during their first 12 months, crocodiles have a 99 percent mortality rate due predators such as storks, monitor lizards and even humans. Crocodile meat is considered quite a delicacy in various countries such as Kenya, and its hide is highly prized by fashionistas for high status accessories. In fact, due to its durability and incredible softness, skin from the underbelly of young saltwater crocodiles is thought to be the best leather in the world with handbags fetching as much as $15,000! Many western women would consider this a small price to pay.   
       With that sort of money at stake, the population of Australian crocodiles came under serious threat - so much so that hunting limits had to be enforced in the early 1970s. As a result, crocodiles are no longer endangered, despite recent concerns for their habitat. Such conservation is nothing new to indigenous tribes, many of whom prevented crocodile hunting for religious reasons. 
       Superstitions and myths concerning the crocodile abound. At one time, for example, people believed crocodiles actually stalked their prey for several days before attacking. Now, careful study shows crocodiles are normally aggressive during the mating season when other creatures wander into its territory but, at other times, are quite happy to ignore the intrusion.
       In Volume 1 of The Runaway Children, Gordon -one of the Tree People - Gordon manages to immobilise a giant crocodile by fastening its jaws together. This is possible because the power of the reptile’s jaws is due to the closing muscles, whereas its opening muscles are comparatively weak. Some say a rubber band could keep the mouth of a 7 foot crocodile shut. And while those impressive jaws can kill, they can also be gentle when used by a mother crocodile to convey her little ones to safety.
       Dead crocodiles are found with stones in their stomachs. Some observers believe these stones may act as ballasts.
       Far from being a sign of aggression, a crocodile with gaping jaws is merely adjusting its body temperature. In common with all reptiles, this needs to be done constantly.
       The heart of a crocodile has four chambers, similar to a mammal. When diving under water, the heart adapts, behaving as though it had just three chambers.
      Newborn crocs come with their own food supply – a yolk sac within their bodies which nourishes the baby for several weeks.
       Crocodiles are often referred to as the ‘eyes of the river’. This is due to a layer of crystals behind the retina which makes their eyes glow red in artificial light.
       When afloat, a crocodile’s mouth fails to keep water out, as it has no lips over the jawbone. However, a valve blocks the entrance to its throat - so the crocodile, which takes air in through its nose, can still breathe
       A ‘third eyelid’ or transparent membrane covers the crocodile’s eyes, allowing it to see clearly while submerged in the river.  
       By building a mound of branches, leaves, reeds and other vegetation near a river bank, the salt-water crocodile provides an effective incubator for its eggs, occasionally splashing water on it with its tail to speed up fermentation and keep the mound at a consistently high temperature.


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