The Cuban crocodile is amongst the most threatened of the New World crocodilians (which include alligators, caimans and gharials). It is of medium size and has a short, broad head with high bony ridges behind its eyes; a large adult has a medial ridge that runs between its eyes towards its snout. Its toes are short and do not have webbing, indicative of animals that spend more time on land as compared to most other crocodilian species. Juveniles and adults both have a sprinkled pattern of black and yellow on their back, and for this reason are sometimes called 'pearly' crocodiles.
Cuban crocodiles have the smallest natural distribution known of any living crocodilian, found today primarily in two areas in Cuba: in the northwest in the Zapata Swamp and in the Isla de Juventud in the Lanier Swamp. These crocodiles prefer fresh water swamps or marshes like those of the Everglades and rarely swim in salt water.
Habits and lifestyle
Cuban crocodiles are equally at home on land or in water, being strong swimmers as well as competent at walking and jumping. Temperature control is important for them, since they cannot generate heat metabolically but soak it up from the sun or from warm water, usually in the morning, when cold and groggy, or once they have eaten a meal, because heat will raise their metabolism. They generally cooperate when feeding or hunting, but still relate to one another within a dominance hierarchy based on size, gender, and temperament. Cuban crocodiles are very intelligent, and the fact that they are more vicious and more lethal is because of their well-coordinated cerebral cortex, tissue that links intelligence, memory and awareness. When crocodiles hunt together in the wild, they will surround large prey to attack it, and maim it to make it defenseless. However, following a hunt, these crocodiles generally remain solitary and often are found basking near riverbeds.
bask, congregation, float, nest
Diet and nutrition
Cuban crocodiles are carnivores, they mainly eat aquatic invertebrates, as well as small terrestrial mammals. Juveniles primarily eat arthropods and small fish. Adult Cuban crocodiles eat mostly fish and turtles, along with small mammals.
Cuban crocodiles are polygynous; this means that one male mates with more than one female. Breeding begins in May and runs until August or September. Conditions like the availability of materials for nesting determine whether they dig hole nests or build hole nests. 30 - 40 eggs are usually laid, to hatch in 58 - 70 days. Many eggs are laid because up to 99% of hatchlings die, mainly due to predation of both eggs and hatchlings by a range of mammals, reptiles and birds, and sometimes by their own species. The gender of the hatchlings depends on the nest’s temperature. Males are produced when internal nest temperatures are 30-32 degrees Celsius, and females when the temperatures is above or below this. In captivity, Cuban crocodiles will often interbreed with Siamese crocodiles and American crocodiles.
Cuban crocodiles are highly vulnerable due to their restricted distribution. Habitat destruction encroaches on the marshes where they live and a further threat is competition by introduced and hybrid species.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total Cuban crocodile population size is around 3,000-5,000 mature individuals. According to the University of Michigan (Museum of Zoology), the total population size of this species is around 3,000-6,000 individuals. Currently Cuban crocodiles are classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List.
Fun facts for kids
- Within the crocodilian family, this crocodile is the most critically endangered.
- Fossil records indicate that the Cuban crocodile once ate giant ground sloths (now extinct), which may be the reason for their blunt rear teeth, which they now use for crushing turtle shells.
- These crocodiles tend to make use of their tails, marked with darkened bands, to distract their prey before leaping at them.
- The age can be determined of one of these crocodiles by the dark color of its iris or a sample of part of its scales.
- The scientific name of the Cuban crocodile refers directly to the rhombus shape of its speckled scales.
- These crocodiles are known for their ‘high walk,’ as their hind feet have reduced webbing, which makes it easier for them to walk on land.
- Cuban crocodiles are able to hunt birds and mammals that live in trees by using powerful thrusts with their tail from beneath the water’s surface, leaping out of the water to catch prey from overhanging branches.