Monday, May 09, 2016

When David Attenborough Met Saltwater Crocodiles

The reason I'm a zoologist today is down to three people. Firstly, my mum, who was (and still is) an avid naturalist at heart, and who instilled a sense of appreciation for nature from an early age. Secondly, my biology teacher Mrs Val Richards, who saw exactly where my passion lay and encouraged me towards a degree in zoology where others saw different pathways. If you're still out there Mrs Richards, you rock. Last, but not least, is David Attenborough. He didn't have his knighthood when he inspired me, he didn't need one... he was just that awesome.

David turned 90 on Sunday 8 May 2016, and I have to say I wish I'm that switched on, alert and full of passion at that age. Frankly, I'd be satisfied with still being alive at that age. I first encountered David Attenborough on 16 January 1979, when I was not quite eight years old, as the first episode of his landmark natural history television program Life on Earth first aired. I remember being transfixed by what I saw, and I had this over-riding sense of wanting to be like David Attenborough, I wanted to go and see the amazing sights of the natural world that he was seeing, and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of life.

David Attenborough in his trademark blue shirt with
freshwater crocodile (lower right), Erin Britton (left)
and Adam Britton (middle).
In October 2006, a little under 27 years later, my wife Erin and I got to work with David for a whole week. I can only imagine what 7 year old me would have thought of this! Don't they say you should never meet your heroes, and he were about to spend a whole week with ours (Erin, of course, viewed David in a similar light). I had been somewhat instrumental in arranging this, because I was being employed by the BBC Natural History Unit as one of their Scientific Advisers for their new series Life in Cold Blood. Specifically, I was the crocodile expert. This extended to suggesting a whole range of different sequences that could be filmed to illustrate just how amazing crocodiles are. I wanted to make sure we blew the audience away with what crocodiles could do, and of course there were a few sequences that I knew we could achieve here in the Northern Territory with saltwater crocodiles. I realised, of course, that this meant we could perhaps get David himself here to do his infamous "pieces to camera" with crocodiles in the same shot. There was one in particular that I knew we could get, because I'd done it myself several months earlier. The only way to do it properly, though, was to get David to do it himself. To cut a long story short, the series producer felt it would make a great sequence, and trusted us to help them get it. No pressure, then.

Several months later, in October 2006, we were there at last. Meeting David Attenborough had Erin and I both rather nervous. What if he didn't get on with us? What if we didn't get on with him? Perhaps he was nothing like the person we imagined? David Attenborough, it turns out, is even more remarkable in real life as he is on the screen. He's not a big fan of hero worship, so we had to rein that in, but he's just a normal, humble, down-to-Earth kinda guy who is incredibly smart and possessed of a razor-sharp wit. We fell in love with him immediately, and he got on with Erin in particular like a house on fire. We spent an amazing week filming crocodiles, almost like something out of a dream, with David standing about 15 m in front of dozens of extremely large and extremely hungry wild saltwater crocodiles, capturing a sequence of them cooperatively hunting in a way that hadn't been shown on television before. That sense of relief, when it all worked, and David nailed his pieces to camera without getting eaten... phew!

We did several more sequences with him, although not all of them made the cut. Perhaps the best, which I'm still sad didn't make it on screen, involved a freshwater crocodile. This was actually our crocodile, and it was a simple piece to camera where David was talking about how the crocodiles became dominant freshwater predators after the majority of dinosaur groups disappeared, and this little freshwater crocodile got up on his four legs - precisely on cue - and began walking in front of David. I always imagined the crocodile thinking "Wow, that's David Attenborough! I'd better get this right..." It was awesome, and we have a copy of it somewhere, but it never made the cut for reasons of flow. Such is life in television.

When it was time to leave us, David gave Erin an big hug, something she'll never forget. When David gives you a hug, it's genuine, they had such a great time. I was satisfied with a warm handshake. He offered us perhaps the best compliment he could have, that he'd never seen anyone handle crocodiles with as much respect and care as we had. That meant a lot to us. He even wrote us a letter a couple of months later thanking us.

We always hoped to work with him again, despite realising just how unlikely this is. At the time of filming Life in Cold Blood he was seriously considering retiring altogether; this was to be his last series. We're glad that he's still chasing his passion. For us, we got to spend a week with this remarkable man who he continues to inspire us to this day.

Happy Birthday David.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

CrocLog Podcast - Episode 18

Wait, what? A new episode of the CrocLog Podcast!? Yes, it's true. And just to be confusing, this is Episode 18. What happened to Episodes 16 and 17, you might ask? Well, they exist on my hard drive - almost complete - and they'll be coming soon. It's a long story involving editing taking far too long, and being way too busy, but they're coming.

Far too much time was spent on previous episodes editing the audio and making it sound smooth. Well no more, Episode 18 is the entire thing without any editing, other than the opening and closing music tracks. I think it works a lot better, plus here it is now rather than being delayed by six months.

The theme in this episode is crocodiles in unusual places. We talk about crocodiles turning up in Martinique and Crete, we discuss two unfortunate examples of crocodiles being shot and blown up respectively (clearly without any respect), we talk about large crocodiles in India, and an extinct crocodile called the Carolina Butcher that may have been bipedal. Brandon summarizes some recent crocodile attacks, and we dissect a crocodile attack video.

Links and the podcast below:

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Expanding CrocBITE


In December 2013 we launched CrocBITE, a database of worldwide crocodile attacks that aims to improve our understanding of human-crocodile conflict. The database is expanding rapidly, with over 2,700 records currently online due to the efforts of Brandon Sideleau in researching crocodile attack data, becoming one of the largest databases on human-wildlife conflict available to the public. CrocBITE is being used by wildlife agencies and researchers around the world to improve species management and help save lives.

The exciting news is that we're now collaborating with Dr Simon Pooley of Imperial College London, who's recently received an ESRC Impact Acceleration Award to develop visualisations that will integrate with CrocBITE. Simon is employing Information is Beautiful to come up with innovative ways of presenting these data to help us find patterns. This will be available to all users as an interactive online tool to help interpret the information.

The goal of the project will be to better engage the public, local authorities, health workers and conservation managers to both contribute data and explore ways in which its lessons can be applied to saving lives. We will be better able to deliver these lessons to a wide audience particularly in rural areas where the risk of crocodile attack is highest with the aim of improving awareness and mitigate risk of crocodile attack.

I'm excited to see what Information is Beautiful can do with these data, and we're hoping to get the updates finished by March 2015, along with some other improvements in usability for the CrocBITE website.

If you haven't seen CrocBITE in action, you can check it out at www.crocodile-attack.info

The original website was created using a CDU Innovation grant in association with crocodilian research and consulting company Big Gecko. The project is entirely non-profit.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Rise from your grave!

Well hello there. It's been a while hasn't it, but the Croc Blog has been on something of a hiatus lately. You can put this down squarely to its owner diverting his energies elsewhere, but this is all about to change... for the better.

First of all, there are not one, but two CrocLog Podcasts on their way. I know this because one of them has been recorded and is pretty much ready to go. Sadly it's a little bit out of date, but hey - let's call it a history lesson. The second hasn't been done yet, but we do have the interview recorded, so really it's nearly there.

Secondly, we'll have a guest blogger appearing soon. I won't say any more at this stage, in case it doesn't happen, but fingers crossed.

Thirdly, I'm back in Darwin again after several months of being here and there, so I'm sitting at a desk in the heat and humidity (the fan is on full) and writing reports, papers and other crocodile-related material. Some of this will surely make its way to the blog.

And finally, here's a picture of a crocodile, because I don't need an excuse!

Australian freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni) on the Ord River



Tuesday, March 25, 2014

CrocLog Podcast - Episode 15

Brandon is currently in Belize helping out on a Morelet's crocodile research project, and we'll be recording a new podcast just as soon as he gets back. In the meantime, here is the long-lost Episode 15 of the podcast. This was recorded back in early December 2013, and for a variety of technical reasons was never quite finished. I've finally managed to get the laptop working that contained the audio editing software (humidity kills everything electronic up here), and you can finally listen to it below.

It's worth a listen because we have a good chat about human crocodile conflict as we discuss the launch of the CrocBITE database. We also end up talking about rattlesnake tails briefly, but soon get back onto the topic and hand by talking about tool use in crocodilians. Brandon discusses a few interesting crocodile attacks from last year, and we end up wondering where all the decent crocodile documentaries have gone lately.

Links to the podcast below:

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Crocodile predators, or crocodiles having a bad week?

Is that... a crocodile tail? Photo by Marvin Muller
Everyone is aflutter lately with some interesting photos doing the rounds that show crocodiles and alligators having what could be considered a bad day. First there was this great series of photos showing a water python (Liasis fuscus) subduing and eating a freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni). The python was estimated to be around 10 feet (approx 3 m) long, and the crocodile between 3 and 6 feet (approx 1 to 2 m) long. It looks to me as though the crocodile was a little over 1 m in length. So it's still a juvenile crocodile, although it would still have been capable of killing the python had it gotten the chance. But pythons work most effectively when they surprise their prey and prevent them from retaliating. Wrappings its coils around the crocodile's body effectively restrained the limbs and the head, and prevented the crocodile from being able to do a thing. Crocodiles can certainly kill pythons easily, and I've seen the results of large pythons torn in two with a quick head flick by the crocodile, so this was a risky attack by the snake but the reward was an enormous meal that would last it for over a month.
The neck bite of doom for this alligator. Photo by Geoff Walsh
If that wasn't enough for the croc world, gators (Alligator mississippiensis) had to let the side down again, this time by being killed by an otter (Lontra canadensis). An otter, for shame! But let's not be too hasty. Just because mammals can be quite tasty doesn't mean they can't be deserving of respect. This otter certainly got the better of this alligator, having learned to bite it in exactly the right location to stay clear of those jaws while being able to tire it out. The article above describes alligators quite vividly as "a grenade" which is certainly apt. Like the snake tackling a freshwater crocodile above, the otter was taking quite a risk here. Alligator jaws are serious business, and getting the initial attack wrong could mean an incapacitating injury leading to death. But the otter knows exactly what it's doing, tiring the alligator out while it's frustratingly unable to deploy its explosive bite. Struggling alligators quickly run out of stamina, leaving the otter to snack on gator tail at its leisure while the alligator was still alive. The article above does make one error; the alligator doesn't die of lactic acidosis, that takes a few days assuming that its blood pH falls too low for its metabolism to correct it in time. The otter would have finished its meal long before that, the alligator having succumbed to its injuries due to blood loss.

While photos like this are fascinating to see because they reveal behaviour that we so rarely witness, they also give the false impression that it's rare for crocodiles and alligators to be eaten. This is a long way from the truth. Hatchlings serve as a tasty treat for a wide range of animals, including birds, large fish, large amphibians, large insects (even ant colonies), various reptiles, mammals and of course humans. That majestic 5 metre long saltwater crocodile basking on the bank without a care in the world? That animal had to endure a gauntlet of predators and other crocodiles for many years before it grew large enough to feel relatively safe. In a healthy population, less than 1% of the hatchling crocodiles and alligators that emerge from their eggs actually survive their first decade, and that's because the vast majority of them are eaten by predators. It's an r-selected survival strategy; invest in a lot of initially vulnerable offspring in the hope that a few of them make it to breeding age. It might seem cold-hearted to k-selected strategists such as ourselves, but you can't deny it works.

Eventually, these offspring reach a size where they're safe from just about anything except larger members of their own species. However, the two examples above show that there is no second prize for nearly making it.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Can crocodiles really climb trees?


photo by M. van Welsem / Mabuwaya Foundation
Philppine crocodile adult
Vladimir Dinets, Matt Shirley and I recently published a paper entitled "Climbing behaviour in extant crocodilians". Here's a link if you'd like to read it. The resulting news stories have been quite extensive, to say the least! Everyone is fascinated by the idea that crocodiles, those vicious man-eating predators we keep hearing about, could climb trees. Perhaps it means that climbing a tree to escape a crocodile is no longer an option? Perhaps it means that crocodiles will start dropping from the branches onto your head for a surprise dinner date? Perhaps when you see a fallen tree by the river bank, you'll think "Wow, it must have been a heavy crocodile to bring that one down!"

Of course I'm just having a bit of fun. None of those possibilities are true, you'll be pleased to hear. Actually, it's been known for a long time that crocodilians (or crocodylians if you want to be pedantic) can climb out of the water onto floating logs and low branches. We didn't publish a paper to point this out, but rather we wanted to explore how widespread this was, and look into the reasons why crocodiles might do this, and even allow us to speculate on how extinct crocodyliforms may have behaved. After all, if you look at a modern crocodile and think there's no way it could climb a tree, you're not going to assume a fossil crocodyliform with a similar morphology is going to be able to do it either. Well, here's a cool thing, some modern species can climb trees, and they can do so remarkably well, often getting several metres off the ground up relatively steep trunks and branches. The modern crocodilian limb is more adaptable than you might have thought.