I Love Crocs

I fell in love with crocodiles in third grade. Our big assignment that year was a presentation to our classmates and their parents about an animal. Crocodiles scared me at the time, so I decided to focus on them. 

By the time of my presentation, I was enamored with how sneakily such hulking creatures could slide through the water, only to surge up towards prey in an astounding display of force. The way mother crocodiles carried their newly-hatched babies in their mouth was adorable. I included an image of this phenomenon on my poster.

As an important aside, the mothers don’t eat their hatchlings. Parents expressed significant concern when they saw what they thought was cannibalism, but calmed down after careful explanation. Male crocodiles, on the other hand, have been caught eating their young, but that’s beside the point.

Crocodiles have been my favorite animals ever since, with alligators coming in as a close second. Before you ask, as a broad generalization, the main differences are: crocodiles have narrower, pointier snouts, while alligators have wider, U-shaped snouts. Alligators’ bottom teeth can be seen when their mouths are shut, and crocodiles’ can’t. Crocodiles can also gallop while gators, disappointingly, can’t. Growing up in Maryland, the only big reptiles I saw were at the National Zoo. Coming into college, I hadn’t learned about crocodiles with any rigor, outside of my third grade project. When I was afforded the excuse to nerd out, I pounced—or perhaps surged, as does a crocodile out of a pond towards a zebra on the shore.

It was a Friday like most others my first year. I was in section for BIOL 104, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the final half-semester of the introductory biology sequence. The final paper was five pages on a clade (a group of species that are all of the descendants from one common ancestor) and a trait that has evolved within that clade. My immediate reaction: crocodiles!

I walked out of class in the basement of 17 Hillhouse to a bright but chilly early-March day. I thought about curling up under a blanket in my suite and watching a movie. Instead, I zipped up my jacket and walked away from Old Campus, up Science Hill. I was on a mission: to find Gordon Grigg’s The Biology and Evolution of Crocodylians.

The order Crocodylia, whose members are called crocodylians, includes crocodiles, alligators, caimans, and gharials. The book was located in the CSSSI. Determined, I faced the wind blowing down the hill and climbed toward KBT.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the CSSSI (whenever you think you’ve said enough S’s, add another) or Center for Science and Social Science Information is a library in the basement of  Kline Biology Tower, the ominous column that looms over Science Hill. Except for the atrium at the entrance, it’s a space with very few windows and many bright lights where very little sun gets in and time ceases to exist. In this basement is another basement. It is in this sub-basement that Grigg’s book was shelved. I walked down the narrow staircase to the CSSSI’s bottom floor, phone in hand, my Orbis search open. I passed books on sharks and frogs and fish until finally, I got to the crocs. Scanning the shelf, I laid eyes on a large grey book with gold lettering. Eureka!  In what was one of the highlights of my first year at Yale, I discovered that Grigg’s book was a full, 649-page textbook. I teared up. Adrenaline rushed through my body as I took it down from the shelf and leafed through its pages. The foreword began, “Few animals are as charismatic as crocodylians, and as poorly understood by the general public.” “This book gets me,” I thought. Crocodiles are charismatic and so misunderstood. 

Captions to pictures revealed that the authors thought crocodylians were just as cute as I did. One of my favorites is, “Fig. 3.25. A juvenile black caiman, Melanosuchus niger, shows a toothy smile.”  

As I walked out of the CSSSI and back down Science Hill, I felt indestructible. I stopped everyone I knew to show them my book, which I clutched tightly against my chest. My fingers went numb from holding it in the cold, but I didn’t care.

That night, as the L-Dub courtyard became abuzz with partygoers and motorcycles roared down Elm Street, I made myself a cup of coffee, settled into my common room, and read. It was the first time in a while that I was reading without taking notes or making marks. I lost track of time. I stayed up later that night than my suitemates who had gone out. As I closed the book in the wee hours of the morning, I felt satisfied with my night and excited for more reading later.

I ended up writing my paper on the evolution of snout morphology, or rather why different crocodylians have different head shapes. Here’s why:

In short, crocodiles don’t chew their food, which means that if prey is too large to eat whole, they have to rip it into smaller pieces by gripping it in their teeth, rotating their head vigorously, and hitting it against the water. This gruesome dance can exert a lot of torque on the jaw. The more triangular the jaw, the shorter the mandibular symphysis, which is where the two prongs of the jaw join together into one shaft. If this shaft is too long, it can’t readily withstand the force of ripping up large prey. For some crocodylians, however, the most abundant prey are smaller and move more quickly. A slimmer snout can move more quickly through the water to catch small fish. 

I spent hours reading Grigg’s textbook while writing this paper (and while I was supposed to be doing other work). If the grade was all that mattered, I probably should have spent more time studying for my final in the class then doing a deep dive on croc jaws. Fortunately, grades aren’t everything.

The first year of college is tough for everyone, but I think that I had set my expectations especially high coming into Yale—which had led to disappointment. I felt like people at Yale were too cool, too artsy, too worldly for me. After going to middle and high school with mostly the same people, I found it frustrating to be constantly meeting people, often without forging very meaningful friendships. I didn’t realize that finding The Biology and Evolution of Crocodylians would turn out to be one of the highlights of my first year. 

At the end of the day, this isn’t a piece about why you should like crocodiles—although they’re awesome and you should. What I learned at the end of my first year was instead how rewarding it was to lean into my interests and take the time and emotional investment to be genuinely excited about my schoolwork. Reading Grigg’s book was the first time that school didn’t feel like work. I felt validated in my love of crocodiles. With this validation, I gained confidence. And I had a blast.

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