The Nile Crocodile

The Nile Crocodile

by Jimmy Dunn


A Nile Crocodile on land


The Nile crocodile (Crocodilus niloticus) actually has a number of suggested subspecies that mostly range through various parts of Africa. It was called msh in Old Egyptian and was referred to by some twenty other words.


Physical Characteristics

Considerable variation exists throughout the range of the Nile crocodile. Generally, it is a large crocodilian, in fact the largest of the African crocodilian, averaging five meters in length but reportedly reaching six meters in rare instances. There are dubious reports of seven meter animals having existed, but these are hard to verify. It is conceivable that some now living in Lake Nasser may attain considerable size. They are known to attain weights of up to 775 kilograms, or about 1,500 pounds. Males are often up to 30 percent larger than the females.


However, there is some evidence that Nile crocodiles in cooler countries, such as. South Africa, reach slightly smaller adult sizes of perhaps four meters. There are two known population of dwarf Nile crocodiles living on the extreme limits of the species' range, in Mali and even the Sahara Desert! However, these are probably not a subspecies at all, but rather populations with stunted growth due to environmental variables. Due to suboptimal conditions, adults average between two and three meters. Juveniles are dark olive brown with black cross-banding on the tail and body. This banding becomes fainter in adults.


A Nile Crocodile Showing his bit


Though crocodiles in general look much like alligators, they can be distinguished by their longer, narrower snout and their fourth tooth, which ticks out from the lower jaw rather than fitting neatly into the upper jaw.


In water, crocodiles swim mostly with their tails. Though their back feet are webbed, they rarely use them underwater. On land, they do use their powerful legs to move about, and they only look slow. Nile Crocodiles have been known to gallop at speeds of about thirty miles per hour over short distances.


A mostly submerged Crocodile




Nile Crocodiles have a wide habitat preferences, reflecting their success and distribution. They live in lakes, rivers, freshwater swamps and brackish water. Sub-adults disperse into different habitats, away from breeding areas, when they reach a length of approximately 1.2 meters. Nile crocodiles modify their habitat by digging dens (usually with their snouts and feet) into which they retreat from adverse conditions such as temperature extremes.


During ancient times, the crocodile not only inhabited the entire length of the Nile, but also was found in canals and pools, as well as in Lake Moeris, in the Fayoum. It rested there on sandbanks, baking in the sun. Over time, the crocodile's range in Egypt decreased, but really were only eliminated from the Nile in Egypt only after the building of the Aswan Dams.


Nile Crocodiles no longer ply the waters north of the Aswan Dam in Egypt




Not only were the great jaws of the reptile feared but also its tail. A blow from a large crocodile's tale could smash the backbone of its victim. Only the adult hippopotamus was safe from the crocodile. Camels, donkeys, cattle, horses and even water birds, except for the trochilos (Pluvianus aegyptiacus), which sits on the crocodile's nose and picks off vermin, were dragged into the depths.


Although the juveniles are generally restricted to eating small aquatic invertebrates and insects, they soon move onto larger vertebrates, including fish, amphibians and other reptiles. Adults, however, can potentially take a wide range of large vertebrates, including antelope, buffalo, young hippos, and large cats. Nevertheless, Fish and smaller vertebrates often form the greatest part of their diet. . They also have a reputation as man killers. Along with hippos and lions, crocodiles account for perhaps a few hundred deaths and disappearances each year, although exact figures are very hard to verify. Nile crocodiles will also often scavenge from carcasses, together with a number of other animals, all of which seem to tolerate each others' presence.


Several prey animals have been found wedged under submerged branches and stones, leading to reports that the crocodiles store unwanted prey until a later date. however, crocodiles will certainly avoid rotting meat. When feeding, a number of individuals will hold onto a carcass with their powerful jaws whilst twisting their bodies. The anchorage provided by the other individuals allows large chunks to be torn off for easier swallowing. A few lone individuals have been reported to wedge prey between branches in order to provide the anchorage necessary for such actions to be effective, which could even be claimed to be a form of primitive tool use.


Other cooperative feeding behavior has been reported, such as the action of many animals to cordon off an area of water to concentrate fish within. A hierarchy of feeding order is often observed in such situations, with more dominant animals feeding first. Groups of crocodiles will often move onto land to scavenge from kills made up to several hundred meters from the water. Adults have also been observed fishing using their bodies and tails to corral the fish towards the bank, where they are concentrated, and picked up with a sideways snatch of the jaws.


It has been observed that social status may influence an individual's feeding success, with less dominant animals tending to eat less in situations where they come into frequent social contact with other, more dominant individuals.




During the mating season, males attract females by bellowing, slapping their snouts in the water, blowing water of out their noses, and making a variety of other noises. The larger males of a population tend to be more successful. Once a female has been attracted, the pair warble and rub the underside of their jaws together. Females lay their eggs about 2 months after mating.


A young crocodile, nevertheless with lots of teeth


This species digs hole nests up to 50 centimeters deep in sandy banks, several meters from the water. These may be in close proximity to other nests. The timing of nesting behavior varies with geographic location. It takes place during the dry season in the north, but usually at the start of the rainy season further south, usually from November through to the end of December. Females reach sexual maturity at a size of about 2.6 meters, while males are usually in the range of 3.1 meters. Females lay around 40 to 60 eggs in the nest, although this number is quite variable between different populations. Females remain near the nest at all times. Incubation time averages 80 to 90 days, though this figure can range from 70 to 100 days. Afterwards, the

females open the nest and carry the juveniles to the water. Both males and females have been reported to assist hatching by gently cracking open eggs between their tongue and upper palate. Hatchlings remain close to the juveniles for up to two years. As with many crocodilians, older juveniles tend to stay away from older, more territorial animals.


A young Nile Crocodile hatching from its egg


Despite the vigilance of the female during the incubation period, a high percentage of nests are raided by a variety of animals, from hyaenas and monitor lizards to humans. This predation usually occurs when the female is forced to leave the nest temporarily in order to cool off in the water.


The Crocodile and the Ancient Egyptians


Old Sobek in the small zoo of the Movenpick Crocodile Resort in Luxor is one of the few that can be seen in Egypt these days


The ancient Egyptians came into conflict with the crocodile when it was necessary to drive herds across a ford in the Nile. Although a magical spell was spoken at the same time, crocodiles were not affected, nor were magical gestures and entreating verses as effective as frightening cries by the herder. Particularly at risk were swimmers or those whose jobs took them onto or into the Nile. These included sailors, water carriers, fishermen, boat builders, launderers and the many marsh workers. In the Instructions of Khety, as published by Hellmut Brunner, a despondent schoolboy was threatened with having to live like the launderer among the crocodiles and hippopotami.


In ancient Egypt, the crocodile was both hunted and worshipped because of its extreme strength. In the region south of Khartoum, often far from the banks of the Nile, near waterholes or animal herds, it may unexpectedly rise from the water with a meter-long leap to crush its victim. Several ancient tomb scenes depicted a crocodile grabbing a baby hippopotamus as it emerged from its mother during birth. However, the adult hippopotamus, capable of biting a crocodile in half, was and is its only enemy besides humans. Other ancient tomb scenes showed crocodiles mating.


The crocodile is usually a part of Nile scenes or papyrus swamp landscapes, showing its preferred territory. From the Old Kingdom until Roman times, it is shown in the midst of shoals of fish, its main food, which the Nile provided a plentiful supply until the 1960s to 1970s when the Aswan High Dam was constructed.


Various writers and travelers of the ancient world, including Plutarch, Pliny and Aelianus, observed the daily habits of the crocodile, reporting that it settled itself on an east-facing sandbank "with idle feet" when the sun rose, with wide-open "fearsome jaws". In the afternoon, it turned westward, and in the evening entered the water.


The crocodile is usually silent. Yet, it was accorded the honor of inclusion among the animal musicians of the Turin Satirical Papyrus. If the animal is frightened or wounded, a gruesome roar or piercing scream may escape it.


Sobek with the Atef Crown at Kom Ombo


However, man could master the crocodile. The thousands of crocodile bodies that were placed in ancient temples and caves prove this to be so. When hunted, the weapon of choice was the harpoon. Their savagery was also harnessed by man. Attempts were made to tame crocodiles caught young, although those were not successful. However, when the Egyptians filled the moats around the fort at Sile with crocodiles, as recorded by the second century BC Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, they were probably as well protected as we are today by defensive weapons.


The crocodile played a meaningful role not only in secular aspects of ancient Egypt but also in mythology, magic and metaphor (imagery). Its mythical and magical names were Chentekhtai, Nephoros, Petesukhos, Maga, Winti, but most often Soknopaios and Sobek (Greek Sukhos). The animal was worshipped as a god (the crocodile-headed god) Sobek, from the marshes of the Nile Delta to the sandbanks of Gebel es-Silsila, around Lake Qarun in the Fayoum, as well as near Thebes. Another god associated with the crocodile was Ammut, who could be depicted as a composite mythical creature whose head, and therefore the most essential aspect, was that of a crocodile. Her name meant "female devourer", or more fully, "female devourer of the dead". In this role, as an underworld deity, she was also called "great of death" and "eater of hearts", and was supposed to destroy those who had led wicked lives


A mummified crocodile from Kom Ombo, one of Sobek's cult centersAccording to Herodotus in the 5th century BC, some Egyptians kept crocodiles as pampered pets. In Sobek's temple in Arsinoe (at one time known as Crocodilopolis), a crocodile was kept in the pool of the temple, where it was fed, covered with jewelry, and worshipped. When the crocodiles died, they were embalmed, mummified, placed in sarcophagi, and then buried in a sacred tomb. Many mummified crocodiles have been found in Egyptian tombs, and even crocodile eggs.


The crocodile was also associated with the great gods Re, Geb, Seth and Osiris. In the Pyramid Texts, this dangerous aquatic reptile was recognized by its "

wrinkled or rough face," its form, a combination of jackal and snake, and its color, designated as "turquoise-green". Tales of its sexual potency were inspired in the Pyramid Text, Spell 510, according to which the king changed into a crocodile before robbing husbands of their wives.


Calcie (Alabaster) pair statue of sobek with Amenhotep III of the 18th Dynasty, now in the Luxor Museum


As a nocturnal being, the crocodile played a significant part in mythical and magical contexts, as well as in imagery. There, it served as "the symbol of all maliciousness," It was said, the name of "the man who is tired of life" reeks more "than the stench of crocodiles." Nevertheless, the crocodile was used as a man's name from the Old Kingdom onward and was the emblem of the sixth Upper Egyptian nome (province).


Nevertheless, according to the Theban cosmogony, the Golden Age would be characterized by "no crocodiles thieving" (and "no snakes biting"). Only for the lover was the crocodile "as harmless as a mouse" when he "enters the waters" to hurry to his beloved.


Even when Christianity arose in Egypt, there continued to be mythology connected with the Crocodile. According to Athanasius, a fourth century AD patriarch of Alexandria, Saint Anthony was able to control the reptile with prayer.








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