As if crawling through a cave wasn’t hard enough… imagine stumbling upon a cave full of crocs!
In 2010, he was part of an expedition into Gabon’s Abanda cave system following a tip-off about a population of dwarf crocodiles living there.
While crocs sometimes retreat underground during droughts, this is the first population documented taking up long-term residence in caves.
The team’s crocodile expert, Matthew Shirley from the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, soon realised why they had done so: a bounty of ready-made snacks was falling into the water or lining up to be plucked off the cave walls.
“You walk in and there are just bats and crickets everywhere,” he says. “The crocodiles are pretty good hunters anyway, but even if they didn’t have to pull bats off the walls, there are individuals falling to the floor all the time.”
…As the team headed further into the caves, they made an unexpected discovery: in the deeper recesses, the older, dark-coloured males had become paler, turning a bright orange. Were they losing unnecessary pigment in a similar way to other cave-dwelling animals, such as Mexican blind cavefish?
Shirley doesn’t think so. Cave crocs must maintain contact with the outside world for one simple reason. “They cannot reproduce in the caves,” he says. “It’s a nesting ecology thing: they need big mounds of rotting vegetation to lay their eggs in.”
So why are they orange?
The water these crocodiles swim through is essentially an alkaline slurry formed from bat droppings. “The urea in bat guano makes the water very basic,” he says. “Eventually that will erode away the skin and change its colour.”
Bizarrely, this is similar to the chemical treatment applied to crocodile skin so it can be turned into belts and wallets.
Ok, that’s just nasty.
Even so, these guys are being reported as a new species.
‘We could say that we have a mutating species, because [the cave crocodile] already has a different [genetic] haplotype,’ lead researcher Dr Richard Oslisly told the Guardian.
‘Its diet is different and it is a species that has adapted to the underground world.’
Dr Oslilsy found the crocodiles in a cave in the remote region of Abanda in Gabon while looking for prehistoric human remains.
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