A peculiar reptile, the gharial stands out from the group. With a long, narrow snout and a funny nose, this creature is no ordinary animal. The gharial’s range is scattered in freshwater rivers throughout Southern Asia, from India to Nepal. Read on to learn more about this cool crocodilian!
1. Gharials are unique
Also known as the gavial, this animal is neither alligator nor a crocodile. Instead, it belongs in its own family. It shares it with only one other species, the Tomistoma, which is sometimes called the false gharial. Recent studies have shown however that the gharial family is related more closely to crocodiles than to alligators. They branched off from crocodiles many millions of years ago, having evolved when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. One recently discovered relative, Hanyusuchus, became extinct only around 500 years ago due to persecution and habitat destruction.
2. Males have a ‘ghara’
The gharial is characteristically known for the large, bulbous growth around its nose, which is only present in males. This structure is known as a ‘ghara’, which translates to ‘mud or earthen pot’ in Hindi, due to its shape. The gharial's name derives from this weird structure. This protuberance sports a few important functions; it helps attract females during the breeding season both visually and acoustically. When underwater, the males will produce a buzzing noise that can be heard up to a mile away, in hopes of attracting females to mate with. The ghara also allows the male gharial to blow out bubbles during courtship.
3. Its legs are weak
The gharial's legs are so weak that they cannot lift their own bodies. This is because they are much more adapted to an aquatic lifestyle than any of their relatives. To move on land, this reptile slides its belly, pushing its body through the ground. Gharials spend most of their lives in the water, leaving only to bask and lay eggs. However, like all living reptiles, gharials are cold-blooded and cannot maintain their body temperature. Therefore, they must bask in the sun to obtain heat.
4. It has the most teeth of any crocodilian
The gharial’s long, thin snout is lined with approximately one hundred sharp, interlocking teeth. In comparison, a crocodile only has around sixty teeth. Combined with their snouts, this is an adaptation for catching their main prey: fish.
The gharial utilizes three known strategies to catch prey. The first method is simply to sit and wait. Gharials will sit motionlessly in the water and allow unsuspecting fish to swim by. As soon as one approaches closely, the reptile will immediately catch and eat its prey. The second strategy is to sweep its snout around to search for food. Its face is lined with specialized sensory cells that can detect subtle vibrations underwater. As soon as it senses prey, it will catch it with its jaws. The final method is to simply swing and catch fish in one go.
Full-grown gharials are piscivores by nature, meaning that they almost exclusively eat fish. However, frogs, turtles, and even birds have all been reported to be eaten by this crocodilian. Juveniles, meanwhile, mainly feast on invertebrates and tadpoles. Gharials will also swallow rocks to counteract their buoyancy underwater.
5. Gharials need our help
Unfortunately, the gharial is currently listed as Critically endangered by the IUCN Red List. It was almost overhunted to extinction in the 1970s, mainly for its skin and meat. The eggs and gharas were also prized as medicines and aphrodisiacs despite lacking any scientific proof of these claims.
Habitat loss is another major threat to the gharial's survival. Draining of water for agricultural use, mining of sand and construction of dams have all contributed to the severe fragmentation of this crocodilian's range. Only around 2% of the gharial’s habitat remains, and it has become extinct in most countries it was once found.
As habitats continue to shrink, gharials also come into conflict with humans. People persecute this reptile due to fear, despite it being relatively harmless and unaggressive unless provoked. As gharials eat fish, fishermen will also sometimes kill them to decrease competition. These animals also become entangled in fishing gear, often hurting, or even drowning them in the process.
The gharial is fully protected in the two remaining countries it survives in (India and Nepal). The gharial population is slowly increasing, providing slight hope for this animal’s future. Zoos and other conservation organizations are working to breed them in captivity and safeguard any existing habitats that remains. Zoos have begun to release captive-born gharials into the wild in hopes of boosting their population.
To help wild crocodilians such as the gharial, you can support zoos and other organizations working to protect them. Telling your family and friends about the gharial is another great way to spread public awareness. Gharials, like most other reptiles, are very misunderstood animals with an undeserved bad reputation, so any positive recognition helps. Though this species is in dire straits, there is still hope for their future survival.