40 Interesting Gharial Facts That You May Not Know
An Interesting and Endangered Reptile
The gharial is a reptile in the crocodile order that has some strange features compared to its relatives. Its jaws are very long and very slender. In addition, the mature male has a large, bulbous, and hollow protuberance at the end of his snout. This structure is called a ghara or gharal.
The gharial is native to northern India and Nepal and lives in and around rivers. Unfortunately, it's critically endangered. Habitat loss is the main reason for this situation. This article describes forty facts about the animal that you may not know.
Gharials belong to the class Reptilia and the order Crocodilia. They are classified in the family Gavialidae within the order Crocodilia. The scientific name of the gharial is Gavialis gangeticus.
1. The first features of the gharial that many people notice are the elongated and impressive jaws and the numerous teeth.
2. The animal is one of the largest crocodilians, or member of the order Crocodilia. Though its body is large, its head is comparatively small. The head bears bulging eyes.
3. The color of the animals varies considerably. Individuals may be grey, light tan, pale olive, dark olive, or black. An animal may have darker bands on its back and tail, especially when it's young. Its undersurface is generally lighter than its back and sides.
4. As in all reptiles, the surface of the body is covered by scales of various shapes and sizes. Reptile scales are made of keratin, a protein found in our skin and hair. Some also contain small blocks of bone, which often gives them a raised appearance. Gharial scales generally tend to be smoother than those of other crocodilians, however.
5. The mouth contain rows of small and very sharp teeth. Though the animal looks fierce, especially when its mouth is open, it's not dangerous to humans unless it's threatened. A gharial has a little over a hundred teeth.
6. The gharial has weak legs compared to other crocodilians. When it's on land, the adult is unable to lift its belly up and has to drag itself over the ground.
7. The feet are webbed and the tail is flattened laterally. These features help the animal to move through water.
In 2018, a group of U.S. researchers demonstrated that crocodilians—including the gharial—gradually lighten or darken in color as the light intensity in the environment changes. The researchers found that the process takes sixty to ninety minutes.
Male and Female Characteristics
8. The words gharial, ghara, and gharal arise from the northern Indian name for a round, earthenware pot with a long neck. The pot is known as a ghara.
9. Male gharials develop their ghara when they are around ten years old.
10. The difference in appearance between the male and the female of a species is known as sexual dimorphism. Gharials are the only member of the crocodile order in which the sexes differ in a feature other than size.
11. Mature females are about eleven to fifteen feet in length. Mature males are around sixteen to twenty feet long.
12. Like its color, the animal's weight varies considerably. Many individuals weigh between 350 and 400 pounds, but large males may reach as much as 1500 pounds. Reportedly, they are sometimes even heavier.
13. Gharials live in rivers, on riverbanks, and on sandbars in the middle of the water. They come on land to bask in sunlight and to build their nests. They are occasionally seen resting on land at night and also rest in the water.
14. The animals often hold their mouths open while basking in the sun, a behavior known as gaping.
15. While gaping can be a sign of aggression, it's often used to keep the head area cool while the rest of the body warms up. Unlike us, reptiles must regulate their temperature by their behavior instead of by internal processes.
16. The main component of the adult's diet is fish. The narrow head reduces resistance in the water compared to the effect of a wider one. The shape enables the gharial to quickly move its head from side to side so that it can grab any fish in its surroundings. The animal is an agile swimmer.
17. The animals are often seen in and around fast-flowing rivers. They prefer to fish in deep areas where the current is weaker, though they are also seen waiting for prey near the water surface. Immature animals are found in rivers and streams that flow more gently.
18. The teeth interlock as the gharial closes its mouth, preventing its prey from escaping.
Both gharials and crocodiles can be seen in the video above. The crocodile species found in and around the Chambal River is the mugger crocodile, sometimes called simply the mugger. Its scientific name is Crocodylus palustris.
19. Like the males, the females become reproductively mature when they are about ten years old.
20. The lifespan of wild gharials isn't known for certain but is thought to be between forty and sixty years.
21. A male collects a harem of females during the reproductive season (November to January) and defends them from other males.
22. The ghara partially covers the nostrils of the male and acts as a sound resonator. It enables the male to produce a buzzing call, which may help him to attract a female. It also enables him to blow bubbles in the water, perhaps as another form of attraction. In addition, it provides an obvious visual indication that the animal is a male.
23. Fertilization is internal. After mating, the eggs are retained in the female's body for several weeks before being laid.
Eggs and Youngsters
24. A female digs a nest on land during the dry season (March and April). She generally lays around forty eggs, though some females lay more. The eggs are often laid at night and are close to the nests of other gharials.
25. The eggs hatch sixty to eighty days after being laid.
26. As in other crocodiles, gender of the offspring is controlled by temperature during incubation. Lower incubation temperatures cause the production of females and higher ones cause the production of males.
27. The mother stays close to the eggs as they incubate in order to protect them from predators.
28. When the eggs are ready to hatch, the youngsters call from within them. Their mother then digs the nest open so that the youngsters can escape. Unlike the case in other crocodiles, the mother doesn't carry the youngsters in her mouth.
29. Researchers have found that along the Chambal River in India, hatchlings from different broods gather in one area. Here multiple mothers take turns in protecting the youngsters. If danger appears, the father may enter and protect the group.
30. A single male is sometimes seen surrounded by numerous youngsters even when no danger is apparent. The degree of parental care in the species has surprised researchers.
31. Young gharials feed on invertebrates and frogs instead of fish. Their snout becomes proportionally longer as they grow and mature.
Historically, the gharial's range spanned rivers of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. Today, only fragmented populations remain in Nepan and northern India.— Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
32. The Red List of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) classifies gharials as critically endangered. It says that around 650 mature individuals exist. The organization's last population assessment was done in 2017.
33. A 2018 report based on other surveys also says that 650 to 700 mature animals exist.
34. The main threats to the gharial population are loss of habitat and drowning after being trapped in fishing nets.
35. Rivers in the animal's habitat are being dammed or diverted for human purposes, such as for irrigation. Unlike the case in most other crocodilians, it's difficult for gharials to move over land to find a new habitat when they lose their current one.
36. Local people in need of food are encroaching on the animal's habitat. Crops are being planted on the edge of rivers and livestock is bring herded over the area in order to reach the river for water to drink. In addition, sand and gravel are being mined for concrete production.
The family Gavialidae contains one other member–the false, Malayan, or Sunda gharial (Tomistoma schlegelii). The reptile is also known as the Tomistoma and lives in Indonesia and Malaysia. Its population is classified as vulnerable by the IUCN. The animal is smaller than the gharial and has a long and thin snout.
Research and Conservation
37. In late 2007 and early 2008, there was a die-off of over a hundred gharials along the Chambal River. The cause of the deaths was never discovered but might have been the illegal dumping of a toxin.
38. Though the die-off was sad, it triggered an international team of biologists and veterinarians to study the animals. The study increased our knowledge of the animals' behavior.
39. New aspects of gharial behavior are still being discovered by researchers. Some animals have been radio tagged and are being tracked.
40. Gharials are being bred in captivity in India and Nepal and then released into the wild. The fate of the wild animals is being publicized and local people are being encouraged to help them or at least not to harm them.
Gharials and Humans
The competition between wildlife and humans is a common one in many parts of the world. Humans are destroying or modifying natural areas for their own purposes and wildlife is often the loser. Thought this situation is affecting gharials, there is hope for their population. An increasing number of researchers seem to be investigating the animals and their plight. In addition, in some areas authorities who have the power to influence the fate of the animals seem to be becoming more involved in the effort to save them. I hope to efforts the save the species are successful.
Gharial facts from the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
Information about gharials from National Geographic
Crocodilians alter skin color in response to environmental changes from the Nature journal
Status of Gavialis gangeticus from the IUCN Red List
The last of the gharials from Discover magazine
Information about gharial conservation from Reptiles magazine
Questions & Answers
Are gharials hunted for their hides like crocodiles and alligators?
Hunting gharials for their hide isn’t considered to be a significant threat to the species today. Loss of habitat is having a far more serious effect on the animals. In the past, however—perhaps until around 2007 or 2008—the animals were hunted for both their skin and their meat. The male was also hunted for his ghara, which was thought to have medicinal benefits.Helpful 5
© 2018 Linda Crampton