Crocodile: Evolution's Greatest Survivor

Crocodile: Evolution's Greatest Survivor

by Lynne Kelly

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Following the fascinating history of the crocodile, this story tells the tale of an ancient animal whose ancestors have roamed the earth since the time of the dinosaurs. Addressing the true nature of this intriguing animal, this resource explores its evolutionary survival, the 23 living species in the world today, and the extinction they face due to


Following the fascinating history of the crocodile, this story tells the tale of an ancient animal whose ancestors have roamed the earth since the time of the dinosaurs. Addressing the true nature of this intriguing animal, this resource explores its evolutionary survival, the 23 living species in the world today, and the extinction they face due to habitat intrusion. Also explored are the myths and legends surrounding crocodiles and the vicious reputation they have amongst humans.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Equivalent to a thorough nature documentary. . . . Readers will come away knowing quite a bit about the crocodile."  —Library Journal

"Superbly readable and exceptionally well-researched."  —Choice

"Equivalent to a thorough nature documentary. . . . Readers will come away knowing quite a bit about the crocodile."  —Library Journal

"Superbly readable and exceptionally well-researched."  —Choice

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Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
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7.75(w) x 5.00(h) x 0.72(d)

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Evolution's Greatest Survivor

By Lynne Kelly, by Lisa White, Ian Faulkner

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2006 Lynne Kelly
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74114-498-7



When the world was still young Gumangan, the crocodileman, and Birik-birik, the plover-man, were always together. They owned a set of fire sticks which they used to make fire. When Gumangan returned from hunting one day, he found Birik-birik asleep, with no fire ready for cooking the food. In anger, Gumangan grabbed the fire sticks, intending to take them to the river where he would dip them in the water so they would never make fire again. But Birik-birik was not beaten. He got the sticks back from Gumangan and ran into the hills, thus preserving the valuable fire forever. Their friendship over, the crocodile always lives near the water and the plover lives in the hills.

The nineteenth century was a time in which explorers set off around the world collecting exotic animals in their thousands. I found it inspiring to read of familiar creatures through the eyes of one young sailor on the famous British survey sloop, the Beagle. In a personal journal, not written for dramatic effect but merely as a private record, the excitement of Helpman seeing the saltwater crocodile for the first time in its natural habitat was infectious. As the small party explored the now well-known Victoria and Adelaide rivers in Australia's far north, the sight of the huge populations of crocodiles in that setting was so overwhelming that he referred to the scene as 'magnificent' and that day as 'perhaps the happiest in my life'.

Those who set off on voyages of exploration and surveying in the nineteenth century did so in the knowledge that they would not see their homeland or their loved ones for years, if, indeed, they returned at all. The unlucky ones might founder on a reef or run foul of the 'savages' who inhabited the lands they were exploring, but the lucky ones would survive to tell tales of strange new lands and the exotic flora and fauna that lived there.

Benjamin Francis Helpman was one of the lucky ones. At the age of twenty-three, in 1837, he took up his commission as Master's Mate on HMS Survey Sloop Beagle. The little ship made famous by Charles Darwin on its previous voyage from 1831 to 1936 was being prepared for her third round-the-world voyage, her second to Australia.

Born in Devonshire on 20 December 1814, Helpman was one of seven children. The four boys in the family all entered the navy. Helpman served in the West Indies and Lisbon, and on at least four vessels, before taking the commission on the Beagle, although little else is known of his life prior to him writing his journals. It is thanks to these journals, faithfully kept throughout his travels, that we can see the wonders Helpman saw through his eyes, one such wonder being the creature he called an 'Alligator'.

The aim of the voyage was to survey the hitherto unexplored great northern rivers of the southern continent. Helpman's understandable excitement at being part of such an enormous undertaking was tempered by his sorrow at leaving his home and loved ones so far behind him. By the time of sailing, Helpman's father had died, but he remained very close to his mother and sisters. And he was leaving behind the young woman he adored, his beloved Sarah.

Conditions on board the Beagle were so cramped that Helpman had only four pocket handbooks in which to record the experiences of many months. Making his own ink, he wrote in such tiny script that his transcriber, E.M. Christie, had to use a magnifying glass to decipher each word. The length of the voyage and monotony of life at sea meant that Helpman had lost some of his enthusiasm for the venture by the time he caught his first glance of New Holland, in November 1837. 'I had the pleasure of seeing the first of New Holland, 'twas Rottnest Island ... A barren, sterile, beastly place ... I have lost a great deal of my roaming notions. I would not have Sarah see such a Country, with the idea of living in it, for anything.'

Helpman had been bitterly disappointed when the Beagle arrived at the Cape of Good Hope to find there were no letters from Sarah waiting for him. Nonetheless, Helpman's youth meant that times of very low spirits were countered by his very real elation at the job ahead: '100 miles more — Hurrah! And then we shall be at places never yet seen by Europeans!!! What pleasure! An unbeaten path — something to learn and do that never was yet seen or done.'

Having landed and revictualled at Fremantle, in Western Australia, the Beagle headed north. The first great river to be named was the Fitzroy, in honour of the Beagle's captain on her previous voyage. It was here that Helpman first mentioned the 'Alligator'. 'Weeks found the upper half of the head of an Alligator, I fancy about 2 feet long, it was quite bleached.' Helpman's 'Alligator' was the estuarine or saltwater crocodile, Crocodylus porosus. Widespread throughout the tropics, the saltwater crocodile has a range of local names but in Australia it is affectionately known as the 'saltie'.

Sailors in those days often took to watching wildlife and became keen naturalists. Helpman was no exception. As the Beagle continued on its winding route along the coast and into the waterways of the north-west, Helpman describes turtles, whales, sea snakes and sharks, along with the continual nuisance of mosquitoes and sandflies. He describes learning to fish with members of the local indigenous tribes, whose skills he greatly admired. He collected shells and observed myriad new species of birds, many of whom were shot for food or as specimens. As they explored further inland, Helpman wrote: 'There was a Rat of immense size, who would not move for the poke of a stick.' He says of the islands in Westernport: 'These islands are a complete store for Birds, Beasts, and Fishes. There are Kangaroo, Wallaby, Opossum, Squirrel and Flying Squirrel, Kangaroo Rats and Mice. Swan, Black Duck, Curlew, Oyster Birds, Storks and innumerable others — Fish of all kinds.'

Two years after leaving England, the Beagle began to map the unexplored coastline of the far north of Australia — prime crocodile territory. At Plymouth Island, Helpman wrote: 'There are a very great number of Alligators here and they have been troublesome, one has been shot, after it had carried off a Dog and a blanket, both of which were found in him.' Late in July 1839, the Beagle arrived at a pristine river environment, one of the best habitats for crocodiles in the world. Helpman recorded his first sighting of a crocodile in Adam Bay:

As the Sun rose, flocks of Parakeets of splendid plumage were seen in all directions. In the afternoon saw an immense Alligator; the first [time] I have ever seen such a monster, went away to shoot it but missed it, firing over it.

Ordered to prepare to go up the rivers tomorrow; Captain and Emery in the Gig, and I with the Whaler. This, I suppose, is a singular mark of his favour, at any rate 'tis just what I hoped would happen. A white frock and pair of trowsers, a tin pot, a plate and spoon — the very thought of going away to see anything new is pleasant — novelty — change — anything but rest for the mind.

Helpman might well record his alligator as being 'immense'. Crocodylus porosus is one of the largest of all the living crocodiles, with specimens being recorded at 6 metres in length and weighing over 1000 kilograms. The species name, porosus, comes from the Greek for 'callus', and bears witness to the calluses found on the snouts of saltwater crocodiles.

Travelling with the party in the smaller boat, Helpman continued noting his observations as the Beagle remained in the estuary of what would be named the Adelaide River.

Monday. July, 29th, 1839. At 4.0 a.m. started away, and exactly at sunrise reached the entrance of the opening, which we followed up. It gradually trended to the S.E., and, to our great delight found every appearance of a River, having deep water, 7 fathoms, the general breadth a mile. With a flood ½ tide, and being very anxious, we got an immense distance up, not less than 20 miles, when all doubts were at an end; we were now in a River, the largest and finest known in New Holland, it having a perfect ship entrance, with plenty of water to this point.

The River was here 300 yards wide. We landed at 10.0 a.m. to get breakfast and sights for Latitude and Longitude. The land is exceedingly level, and soil good, of fine rich mould. We remarked that each alternate reach was wooded on the opposite side, and immediately opposite was a clear open space. The reaches were very serpentine, the points rounded.

What Helpman is describing here is perfect crocodile country. The wide, deep river enables the crocodile to hunt with ease, stalking its prey and then lying in wait, almost invisible from the river bank. Crocodiles feed and hunt mainly in the water. They come up on to the river bank to sunbake, which helps them to maintain their body temperature, and they nest there in the breeding season. The saltwater crocodile particularly likes mangrove-lined tidal rivers. Helpman describes a tropical river rich with wildlife, offering easy pickings for the resident crocodiles.

Whilst we were coming up, at about daylight, 6 fine Mullet jumped into the boats, which, with a fine large Catfish which was caught, gave us a sumptuous meal.

We had now quite cleared the Mangroves, and the clumps of trees on each side were evident forest. The land had still the same appearance parched up, and there were several fires spreading in all directions. The numbers of Alligators' beds in the grass made it rather dangerous walking. We saw a great number, about 10 feet, floating with their heads just showing above the water; the eye being on the upper part they sink almost without motion, which is very singular.

Helpman is describing the typical swimming and lurking behaviour of not only the saltwater crocodile, but all crocodilians. Only the nostrils at the tip of the snout and the eyes, perched high on the head, break the surface of the water. The crocodile's ability to move almost soundlessly through the water, making scarcely a ripple on the surface, means that there is little to warn potential prey of its presence. The 'beds in the grass' are also typical of good saltwater crocodile country. During the wet season, from November to March, the female crocodiles build their mound nests from grass and mud.

After dinner we again pushed on, still carrying deep water — 7, 8 and 9 fathoms — general breadth 250 yards; the general length of each reach of a mile, and very serpentine ¾ indeed, rounding from S.E. by E. suddenly to S.W. The grassy plains commenced from about 14 miles up; occasionally mud banks from which the Alligators came sliding off. After getting our dinner we again shoved off, but did not get above 5 or 6 miles higher up when we came to, lashing the boats together, and as I had joined the Captain's and Emery's mess I found it quite pleasant ...

Thursday. July, 30th, 1839. At 4.0 weighed, and continued our winding progress; the River still maintaining its breadth, depth, and numbers of Alligators. As the day broke, the scene became magnificent, and I think it was about the happiest of my life ...

We landed for breakfast on a large plain of rich soil and thick grass, but still no appearance of any elevations.

We were not very long at this meal, everyone feeling very anxious to push on. Immense flocks of Birds, Cockatoos, Ducks and Geese were now seen. The Ducks are very much like Teal, only larger, and without any bright feathers. But the most singular part of the whole is, that both Ducks and Geese were perched on dead trees in immense flocks. We shot a number of Ducks, but the Geese were too shy. Ibis, in great quantities were now seen ... The Alligators now became very thick, and one of them showed a great inclination to dispute my right to a duck, and did not give it up until we were close to it.

We landed about 11.0 for latitude. The Bamboo was now the principal thing seen, and we dined under them. They are really splendid, not above a few inches in diameter at the bottom they gradually taper to a fine hairbreadth at 60 or 70 feet high. We saw amongst the high grass, quantities of nests of Alligators, and the places where they had been basking in the sun. The land still open, and rich grassy plains, but each alternate reach wooded on the opposite side. It was here about 250 yards wide and 7 fathoms deep. After dinner we again pushed on, and in one of the reaches came on immense quantities of Vampires. When on the wing they look exactly like Crows, being much of that size. They were hanging by the hooks of their wings with their heads down, and the wings wrapped close around them. They were in clusters of thousands, and the noise they made was a scream, and they smell abominably. I was glad, after my curiosity had been satisfied at the expense of my olfactory nerves, to get off. The Thermometer was, during the day, 94, and at night, 66. Just as we were coming to for the night, we saw high land, and landed and found it an elevated ridge about 2 miles off, but not above 150 feet high. The entire features of the country unaltered, being still clear, open plains, and fine soil. The water was now quite fresh, and had been for some miles. I again had a very pleasant nap.

The temperature range Helpman describes here, from 19°C to 36°C, is perfect for the heat-loving crocodiles, and for the animals he calls 'Vampires', otherwise known as the black flying fox (Pteropus alecto) or Gould's fruit bat. These bats roost in colonies of hundreds of thousands and it is no surprise that such dense populations of crocodiles favour the same territory. The crocodile is capable of leaping high out of the water to reach prey, or even tail-walking in the way we are more used to seeing with dolphins. Fruit bats roosting in trees overhanging the river are easy pickings. Birds, fish and animals drinking at the water's edge offer a varied diet to the river's largest inhabitants.

On Wednesday 31 July 1839, Helpman wrote of fearing the harmless 'Vampires' while recording less fear of the animal which now has such a deadly reputation — his Alligators. Clearly, others in his crew were less relaxed about potentially fatal encounters.

About 3.00 p.m. we came to a reach, about 1¼ miles long, thick wood on the banks, and to our astonishment found it completely filled with Vampires.

There must have been millions, they were frightened at us, and as they cannot fly, except from the top boughs, many broke down and came into the river, where numbers of Alligators were waiting to receive them. They were so thick as to completely darken the entire reach, and even when the trees appeared quite filled, nor do I think 'twould have been possible for them to have [all] been on the wing together. They are generally considered very dangerous, and if they had taken it into their heads, we could not have formed a mouthful for a thousandth part. What with their noise and smell, it was almost insufferable ...

Whilst we were at this place, with both boats lashed together, an Alligator got in between us, but whether with the intention of getting into the boat or not I cannot guess; he made a terrible fuss when first seen, in getting away. The Mosquitoes were very troublesome, especially when the Captain and I landed at 10.0 p.m. for sights. The tracks of the Kangaroos were very plain, and at night we heard several come down to drink. In spite of every obstacle I slept soundly. Thermometer day 92, night 68 ...

After the dinner, whilst the boat's crews were taking a siesta, two Alligators made attempts to get into the boats, and so frightened one of the men (Lobb) as not to be able to speak for some time.

After six days of surveying, Helpman and his small band returned to the Beagle, to the relief of the remaining crew, who had been worried that the explorers had been lost. They completed the surveys and named the river they had so admired the Adelaide River, in honour of Queen Adelaide, the widow of King William IV and the Dowager Queen of England. The Alligator river system was later named for its huge crocodile population, reflecting the common use of the term back then. These rivers lie 100 kilometres to the east of the Adelaide River, in what is now Kakadu National Park.

Leaving the Adelaide River, the Beagle sailed on westward to the young town of Port Darwin. Pressing further west beyond Port Darwin along the northernmost coast of Australia, the Beagle came to a huge river, which necessitated months of exploration to produce a detailed survey map. Storms and excessive heat, sandflies and mosquitoes, along with the constant search for fresh water, dominate Helpman's journal.

It has not been named yet; I suppose the magnitude of it must first be known before the illustrious name it has to bear is known. At noon we entered the heads. It is about 1½ miles broad, the land on both sides high and almost barren. There are quite a few stunted trees which saves its credit, the points are all rocky, altogether it was a most miserable place. About 2.0 we had reached about 10 miles inside the Heads, Came to and moored. The Country is deeply cut up, quite loose stone. The low land appears to be all Mangroves, and covered at high water. The Thermometer altered after entering the Heads to 92 ...


Excerpted from Crocodile by Lynne Kelly, by Lisa White, Ian Faulkner. Copyright © 2006 Lynne Kelly. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Equivalent to a thorough nature documentary. . . . Readers will come away knowing quite a bit about the crocodile."  —Library Journal

"Superbly readable and exceptionally well-researched."  —Choice

Meet the Author

Lynne Kelly is an educational consultant in science, mathematics, and computing. She is the author of Avenging Janie and The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal.

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