Reptiles with Attitudes (and DNA Trails)

Basking in the African sun.

When it comes to apex predators, it is hard to imagine anything more terrifying than the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus).

This reptile grows to lengths of fifteen feet or more and can easily weigh a thousand pounds. In Africa’s muddy water it is without peer; even on land it can be deceptively quick. The Nile crocodile can do more than run: it can gallop! The size and mobility of this amazing creature, combined with an armor-plated hide, a bone-breaking tail, a fearsome maw of ivories, and an real bad attitude, make it a perfect killing machine.

I know this—which is why I find my hosts hard to believe. They tell me there are Nile crocs in Ghana that are friendly.

“You can pet him. You can even sit on him.”

“Sit on him?” I can’t believe it. “He’ll bite your bum!”


Smiling for the camera.

The Nile crocodile has the strongest bite force of any living animal. This may be true of long-gone populations as well. Anatomical study suggests that the crocodilian patriarchs had at least twice the “jaw power” of their peers, including the reptilian king, the Tyrannosaurus Rex!

Naturally after I deliver this lecture, my hosts must stop to show me some “friendlies.” The stop is located along a potholed road between Cape Coast and Kakum Park. The sign reads “Hans Cottage,” or, the Botel (a tasty term that melds “boat” with “hotel”). This floating mishmash turns out to be a Ghana-style bar hotel resort pee-wee baseball complex (I just made up that last part) with an evolutionary path all its own. It has grown legs, walked out of the jungle, slipped down muddy banks, and tip-toed into stagnant water. Stilts elevate odd-angled walkways between the swarming flesh-eaters below (the majority are microscopic) and hundreds of pooping birds above. It is a real must-see. As I watch the pipe from the men’s room drain directly into the lagoon beneath me, a whole new meaning congeals around the term “diner.”

An eatery for all, a swim-hole for some. Since I somehow neglected to shoot this shot myself, I borrowed one from here

We stand near the stained snooker table and peer down. From the safety of our perch I spot a croc. He lies still. Only his nostrils and eyes protrude from the water. We watch him. Is he asleep? Is he dreaming of having his ears scratched? His belly rubbed? Is he purring?

A croc dreams under the snooker table.

Edem calls to us. I walk up the gangplank and stop suddenly. A croc is stretched out between me and the jeep. Apparently it is one of the “friendlies.” My other friends encourage me to touch it. I hesitate. Are they bluffing?

A waitress assures me that this croc is a good chap. How can she know? Am I really that gullible? Note the other tourists (behind the wall) marveling at my bravery. They are all Buckeye fans; they think they are so smart.

The croc is smallish, maybe only six or seven feet long. I figure he can’t eat more than an arm. Then I imagine how entertaining it will be when I play my mandolin with only the remaining one. Gary Griesser will be so impressed. I steel myself to the challenge.

Fresh encouragement is offered: “stay clear of his head.”

Oddly enough, the thought never occurred to me. I was thinking of scratching him under his chin.

Ancient Egyptians counted the Nile Crocodile among the gods. Sobek,“the splashing one” is violent and fertile. In some mythologies, he sires the Pharaohs themselves (consider how the prophet Ezekiel satirizes this identification in 32:2-8). Yet despite the fierce intensity of the animal, the Egyptians knew that some could be tamed. They dressed them, fed them, played with them, watched Seinfeld reruns with them, and mummified them.

Sobek and Hathor depicted on the Kom Ombo Temple, Egypt. Image from here.

In recent news (read: the last two years), biologists studying reptilian DNA have determined that the animal we call the Nile crocodile is not one, but two species. One is the aggressive brute (Crocodylus niloticus) that will eagerly dine on your innards. This species dominates the Nile River in our own time and is likely responsible for eliminating its more pacific cousins. Crocodylus suchus, is a smaller, passive, and more cuddly member of the clan. It is no longer found in Egypt, but does survive in West Africa. It is difficult to distinguish between C. niloticus and C. suchus except through a microscope. But you can bet your raw hamburger that the ancient Egyptians figured it out. Mummified crocs from Egypt that have been studied are of the C. suchus variety. Surprise, surprise, surprise!

So the question remains: what kind of DNA does the reptile in front of me carry? Both species are attested in this region. I cannot tell the difference. So I do the only thing I can do: I warn him sternly.

“Stay, doggie.”

Then I prepare to die.

I tentatively reach out and pat his tail. It does not wag. It feels like my father’s shoes.

The croc-whisperer works his magic.

The encounter is brief. I jump back, pleased to still have all my appendages. Everyone laughs. Then the waitress from the Botel decorates the fella with a flower. And sits on him.

I am humbled, yet again.