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June 17th is the annual World Crocodile Day. Why celebrate crocodiles and what do they mean to the Cayman Islands?
There are four groups of crocodilians (crocodile-like animals): Alligators, Caimans, Gharials, and Crocodiles themselves. There are 13 species of crocodiles today spread around the world’s tropics, from the Indo Pacific Saltwater Crocodile, the largest reptile on Earth, growing up to 23 feet long, to the West African Dwarf crocodile growing to less than 5 feet.
Notwithstanding what movies may portray, crocodiles are an important part of the ecosystem, playing a role similar to that of the ocean’s sharks in our swamps, lakes, and rivers. They control numbers of fish and other animals inhabiting these ecosystems to prevent overcrowding and overgrazing, as well as removing injured and diseased animals and carrion.
The presence of crocodiles as an apex predator can indicate a healthy ecosystem. As man encroaches more and more on the natural world, it is important to consider that what is detrimental to the crocodile can also impact all the other wildlife of that ecosystem. It would also be prudent to keep in mind that crocodiles are powerful predators and like all wild animals should be treated with caution and respect and not let irrational fear guide our perception of these ancient survivors of the age of dinosaurs.
Regarding the Cayman Islands, the fossil record indicates that two crocodile species once inhabited these islands: the Cuban crocodile and the American crocodile. Historic records indicate in 1526 the islands’ name changed from “Tortugas” to” Caymanos” in honour of the resident crocodiles. If it were not for the presence of these animals we would probably still be known as “Las Tortugas”!
Crocodiles still inhabit the Cayman Islands today but are extremely rare. Smiley, one of the last Cayman crocodiles, has been resident at CTC since her discovery and rescue off Grand Cayman’s North coast in December 2006. At over 11 feet long and estimated between 350 – 400 lbs, she is possibly Cayman’s largest native (non-marine) wild animal and a reminder of the days when crocodiles ruled these islands for which they are now named.
In celebration of World Crocodile Day, we invite you to visit CTC on Thursday 17th June or join us online at 12 PM noon to meet Smiley the Cayman Crocodile, hear her story and witness a croc feeding display.