Crocodiles are probably the last animal you would expect to find deep in a desert. But under the sweltering heat and scanty rainfall of Sahara, against all odds, and despite the harsh conditions, there is a species of pygmy Crocodiles that has made the desert its home.
There have been stories told for hundreds of years of desert Crocodiles across the vast expanse of the Sahara desert. While in most regions the Crocodiles were believed to have gone extinct, the stories of scaly aquatic reptiles however persisted. The researchers and scientists in these regions often dismissed the stories as fairy tales or thought that reptiles like monitor lizards were misidentified as Crocodiles.
That changed when Tara Shine, a researcher, arrived in Mauritania located in Western Sahara. She was there to study ephemeral wetland ecology: the type of wetlands that are fed by rain water rather than a river. She too heard the stories from the locals about the desert Crocodiles in one of the hottest regions in the world; but rather than dismissing it, she decided to investigate. To her surprise she found the stories to be true.
Crocodiles were once common in the lush tropical grasslands of Sahara.
Sahara wasn't always a desert. Not at least some 5000 years ago. It used to be a tropical grassland with enough rainfall to sustain wildlife and human settlements. Sahara, back then, was home to Africa's large land mammals like the Giraffes, Elephants, Rhinos, Lions and Cheetahs. In the rivers and lakes however, the Crocodiles ruled.
But something changed, and in a very short time the lush green landscape gave way to dry sands. Most scientists believe the rapid desertification came from a small tilt in the earth's axis, bringing drastic changes to the climate in the region. The rains stopped, the rivers and the lakes dried, the plants disappeared and the grasslands were swallowed by the desert.
Crocodiles were once worshipped by the Egyptian civilization.
Despite the rapid change across the land, the Crocodiles did find refuge in places like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. But in Egypt, they were treated like gods. The perennial Nile river fed by torrential equatorial rain from central Africa was fearsome enough to overpower the scorching Saharan heat. Here, the desert Crocodiles found sanctuary and weaved themselves into ancient Egyptian culture. The crocodile headed god Sobek, the Egyptians believed, protected them from the wrath of the Nile floods and nourished the land with fertile soil. There was even a city called Crocodopolis dedicated to Sobek. In the city temples Crocodiles were raised by priests and were worshipped as part of rituals. They were also believed to be sacrificed to please Sobek and then mummified for its journey in to the afterlife.
Where are the desert Crocodiles found today and how do they survive?
The Crocodiles in Egypt exist even today, supported by the lifeline provided by the Nile River. But finding them in places without the support of large rivers to sustain them was thought to be impossible until the discovery in Mauritania. But how did the Crocodiles manage to survive here?
The monsoon rain in August is the only precipitation in Mauritania and it changes the landscape in extraordinary ways. The flat desert plains become wetlands, teeming with life short after. For some time at least, the desert resembles an equatorial paradise for many animals and the Crocodiles appear in large numbers. The Crocodiles make the most of the opportunity : feeding and breeding in the short time span available to them.
The wetlands last for 10 weeks at most until Sahara's heat is back to claim the land lost to the rain water. To adjust to such extreme weather conditions, desert Crocodiles in Mauritania have evolved into a completely different species when compared to their Nile cousins. Because the feeding happens in a small period and as the prey size is small, they don't grow more than three meters in length. Compare that to the Nile Crocodiles that are twice the size.
As the water recedes, desert Crocodiles have to find new dwellings. Some find Gueltas - a permanent water hole or oasis; others burrow deep underground. While Crocodiles have been known to burrow shallow nesting holes, in Mauritania the burrows can be as deep as 15 meters. Here, during the dry season, some go into deep summer slumber called Aestivation - the summer form of hibernation. This allows them to conserve precious energy till the rain is back and the water levels are sufficient to hunt and breed again.
In another evolutionary trait, the baby hatchlings go underground by themselves as soon as they are born. In other species, their mother leads them to the water. The timing of their birth also coincides with the arrival of the short rainy season, where the young ones can have enough to feed and prepare themselves for another long period of dormancy.
The future of desert crocodiles.
While the Crocodiles seem perfectly adjusted to their desert environment, the history of extinctions in other regions of Sahara is an enough warning sign. The Desert Crocodiles found in Mauritania, Mali and Chad are worshipped and revered by locals - just like in Ancient Egypt. And this is probably the reason the animals have survived and are thriving in these regions. But climate change presents a new challenge, as extreme weather patterns can mean prolonged periods of drought and shortage of rainfall - hampering the existence of these beautiful aquatic creatures that have made the desert their home.
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