Featured Creature: Gharial

(Photo by Charles J Sharp)

Which large creature has a toothy smile, a surprising family tree, and a name inspired by a piece of dishware? 

The Gharial!

(Photo by Charles J Sharp)

I stumbled upon this creature when looking at various crocodiles and alligators, marveling with a friend at how funky reptiles can be (a typical Saturday night activity, naturally). I was captivated by the long snout and wide eyes that give this croc such a unique face. And in delving into articles on the gharial, I found plenty to marvel at. 

Cool crocodilians

Gharials, also called gavials or Gavialis gangeticus if you’re being scientific, are one of just two living species in the family Gavialidae, along with the Tomistoma schlegelii, or False Gharial. Members of this croc family are characterized by their long, narrow snouts that they use to catch fish. 

The gharial’s somewhat lonely taxonomic position led me to a fascinating deep-dive on the whole order Crocodilia, which contains all crocodilians (caimans, alligators, gharials, and true crocodiles). Did you know that these reptiles are actually the closest living relatives of birds? This surprising link, and the story of the gharial more broadly, made me aware of just how small a fraction of the history of life on Earth is actually represented in the creatures roaming our planet today. 

Gharials themselves only roam a relatively small range of the Earth, dwelling exclusively in the Indian subcontinent. They are some of the most massive crocodilians, with bodies that stretch from 12 to 15 feet, and weigh up to 2000 lbs. They also lay the largest eggs of any crocodilian, coming in at around 3.5 in (90 mm) long and weighing about 5.5 oz (160 g). 

During the dry season gharials will mate, and when it is time the females find a sandbank along a river to dig a hole for a nest of up to 40 eggs. They lay their eggs at night and stay close by to protect them during the incubation period (usually 60 to 80 days), in which the eggs are vulnerable to predation by mongooses, wild pigs, and large lizards. 

While female gharials protect the eggs and young hatchlings, male gharials tend to be less involved in childcare. They are better known for their interesting behaviors prior to reproduction, when they engage in mating displays that involve splashing water, blowing bubbles, and producing buzzing vocalizations. These vocalizations utilize a feature unique to male gharials – a bump on the end of their snout known as a ‘ghara’, for the resemblance to locally used clay pots (called gharas in Hindi). It is this bump that gives the gharial its name.   

(Photo from San Diego Zoo)

Toothy Eaters

Another notable feature to gharials are their teeth – a whopping set of 110 interlocking teeth, many more than the average of 66 teeth in other crocs. Their largest teeth are at the front end of their long snouts and are used for catching their main prey of fish. While adult gharials are mainly pescatarians, their young tend to feed on a combination of insects, frogs, and crustaceans. 

Gharials’ bodies are somewhat unwieldy on land, with legs that struggle to support their massive frames to walk with agility. Unlike other crocodilians, they don’t walk around or move in great lunges to catch their prey. Instead, they spend their time in the water, where they can lurk and use special sensory cells in their snouts to detect vibrations of prey in the surrounding area. 

Unsurprisingly given their aquatic lifestyles, gharials live in rivers and wetlands. They were once ubiquitous throughout South Asia, from Pakistan to Myanmar, but now they are confined to a very small percent of their historical range in India and Nepal, where they struggle to hold on in the wild. 

(Photo by Rich Lindie)

Risk and resurgence 

Gharials are among the most critically endangered creatures on the planet, with somewhere between 300 and 900 adult individuals left in the wild, a shocking decline of 98% from their population in the 1940s. Between large-scale habitat loss and degradation, encroachment from human development, including changes to river flow and construction of dams that inhibit gharials’ access to their native waterways, pollution, poaching, and fishing practices that can harm gharials themselves or deplete their prey, these unique creatures face a multitude of challenges to their continued existence.

There are efforts to support their resurgence, including multiple rear and release programs, and recent years have seen encouraging signs in the hatchlings spotted along certain riverways. You can hear about one such heartwarming story here: First Gharial Hatchlings Spotted in Nearly Two Decades in Nepal’s Karnali River. However, gharials, like many other creatures, depend on robust and healthy wetlands for their survival, and the best (and perhaps the only) sustainable way to ensure the goal of survival is to conserve and restore our ecosystems to abundance. 

As often happens when researching Featured Creatures, I found that the solutions to these issues may be simple, but certainly are not easy. The ecological principles are simple to understand – abundant habitat, clean waterways, and protection from poaching and extraction make for a thriving ecosystem. But managing water, land, and energy under various economic and developmental pressures is tricky to do, and we need a systems approach to make sure the precious diversity of life that sustains a healthy planet for all is prioritized now and into the future. 

These are the deep changes we are trying to make – with every email, newsletter, course and conference, to contribute to a wholehearted transformation of what it means to be a human being and a thoughtful participant in our interconnected world. Thank you for your part in this transformation.

In the spirit of survival,