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Press: Wild thing: crocodiles

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Posted by W von Papinešu on August 20, 2002 at 16:52:20:

THE TIMES (London, UK) 17 August 02 Wild thing: crocodiles (Ruth Padel)
You must never smile at a crocodile, however seductively he leers at you, writes Ruth Padel.
?Come hither, little one,? whispers the crocodile on the banks of the Limpopo River at the inquisitive, gullible Elephant?s Child in Kipling?s Just So Stories. Nineteenth-century European images of crocodiles picked on this hypocrisy.
How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!
runs the song in Alice in Wonderland. A. E. Housman wrote a strangely bilious satiric poem on public decency as a Nile crocodile swallowing (ie, clothing) a naked local child so European travellers are not offended.
Come, awful infant, come and be
Dressed, if nothing else, in me
This monster cares only about the child?s exterior, not its welfare:
The infant, clad in crocodile,
Meekly yields his youthful breath
To darkness, decency, and death
and the poet remarks:
Its conduct does not seem to me
Consistent with sincerity
Crocodile tears of false remorse are further tokens of hypocrisy. The 13th-century Franciscan monk Bartholomaeus Anglicus wrote in his Encyclopaedia of Natural Science: ?If the crocodile findeth a man by the brim of the water he slayeth him there if he may, then weepeth upon him and swalloweth him at last.?
In the 14th century, Mandeville?s Travels popularised the motif. It spread to Shakespeare, and into the over-active imagination of a 16th-century slaver John Hawkins, who watched Caribbean crocodiles ?cry and sobbe like a Christian body? to lure sympathetic victims into range.
This was guilt projected from what he was up to himself, for what really happens is that a crocodile?s lachrymal glands secrete protein-filled fluid behind the nictitating membrane (the third eyelid that sweeps across the eye to protect it underwater). These tears are seen when the crocodile has been out of the water a long time and its eyes are drying.
Cultures that live with crocodiles have a wider range of associations, from terror to reverence. In parts of ancient Egypt, they were connected with sunrise and flooding. ?Having swallowed the moon (ie, conquered the night), the crocodile wept?, to make the Nile rise.
At Thebes, a young crocodile was reared in a temple, decorated with jewels. Sobek the crocodile, or crocodile-headed, god was chief deity of the Faiyum, a lake at the end of an offshoot of the Nile. But he was worshipped in other places, too, and often shown with the Feather of Truth (which judged the soul of the dead man). Crocodiles were sacred, and sometimes mummified. Amazing energy (and endurance ? think of the smell) went into mummifying the hundreds of crocodiles excavated from a necropolis, now stored in the temple of Hathor at Kom Ombo on the Nile, north of Aswan.
India?s ancient civilisations also depended on powerful rivers, and the crocodile, their underwater ruler, has a prime place in Hindu religion. River Ganga depends on a crocodile for her visits to the Bay of Bengal from the Himalayas; the rain-god Varuna rides on the crocodile Makara. But there also stories of its rapaciousness. When the elephant Gajendra is attacked, he appeals to Vishnu, who kills the crocodile for him. In moral educational stories, rather like Aesop?s, crocodile Ugly-Mug stands for brute strength, outwitted by, for instance, the vulnerable but intelligent monkey.
In Malaysia, a crocodile supposedly has two pairs of eyes, one for daylight, another for night and underwater, and a special stomach where it hides human clothes. A child who falls into a river turns into a crocodile.
In fact, the 23 species of crocodilians around the world (except Europe) are the closest things to a dinosaur left. The lineage is 240 million years old. The word ?alligator? comes from Spanish el lagarto, ?the lizard?, but crocodilians are in many ways related more closely to birds.
Most species of both build nests from plant material, lay eggs and go in for long-term parenting. In Florida?s wetlands, you can see mother alligators with babies on their backs. The mother may stay near for more than a year: a young alligator in distress croaks a series of sharp calls, like an upset baby bird, that brings her running.

Open wide ...
Crocodiles are the largest species in the family of crocodilians, which has three subfamilies. Alligatorinae include the world?s two alligators (found in the American South and China) and South America?s caimans. True crocodiles exist in 15 subspecies. Finally, there are the slender-snouted gharials.
Crocodiles rely on careful thermo-regulation to survive. Lousiana?s alligators, for example, hibernate in ?gator holes?, which they dig in river banks, clearing mud out with their tails. Gator holes are marked by lusher greenery: the vegetation is fertilised by their droppings.
One moralising ancient Greek took the crocodile as an image of the dual nature of man, because it could live in water or on land. On land, crocodiles move in two ways. In a belly crawl, they slither like lizards, their tummy in contact with the ground, feet splayed out to the side. But in the ?high walk?, their body and half their tail is lifted off the ground.
Scientists believe this ?high walk? is a remnant of a style of movement used by their dinosaur ancestors. Many of these were more terrestrial than modern crocodiles and could sprint considerable distances on land.

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