by Matthew Norton
Energy is a major currency in the natural world. Every living thing gets it by eating food, using sunlight to make sugars, or by exploiting some other natural resource. But to do anything productive, and that includes just being alive, one has to spend energy and a lot of it. This is especially true in the top predators, whose powerful hunting techniques usually incur such a high energy cost that it makes sense to maintain a budget and only unleash their full potential at the opportune moment.
Crocodiles, such as the particularly impressive saltwater crocodile and Nile crocodile, are no exception. Though thoroughly lazy when bathing in the sun, as many reptiles are compelled to due to being cold blooded, they are not to be underestimated when they are on the hunt. As well as their formidable size and teeth, these crocs are also patient, often stalking their prey in murky water. Once in range, the crocodile will lunge forward with incredible speed and strength. If done right, their target will have no idea what hit them until it’s too late.
But as I said before, these bursts of power come at a cost, not just in the energy required for these strikes, but also in the speed at which this energy is needed. In turn, this requires a change in how that energy is released in the cells that make up the crocodile’s muscles.
Under normal conditions, energy is stored in an animal’s body in the form of glucose sugars. The energy is then released by a process called aerobic respiration (with oxygen), which consists of a long series of chemical reactions that includes oxygen and a great deal of cellular trickery to squeeze every last piece of energy out of each molecule of glucose.
But when that same animal needs a lot of energy very quickly, which tends to happen when you are hunting down your food, or running for your life, the aerobic method is too slow to keep up with demand. In this situation, anaerobic respiration (without oxygen) is the preferable alternative as it releases energy far quicker, though at the cost of efficiency. This version of respiration also leads to the build up of a waste product called lactic acid.
The body of any animal can only tolerate so much excess lactic acid, but it’s in this inconvenient side effect that crocodiles have a surprising advantage. For they can tolerate incredibly high levels of the acid that would kill most other animals. Perhaps this allows them to throw extra power into their attacks, or perhaps this extra resistance is linked to other behaviours that require anaerobic respiration in some capacity.
Crocodiles would have little oxygen to spare while they are submerged in water and preparing for an attack. During this time, they can minimise their energy consumption to some extent, but there are still basic life functions that cannot be switched off. To keep their body ticking over, they have to resort to anaerobic respiration and then launch at their prey with a body already brimming with lactic acid. Depending on the size of their catch, they may also have to drag it back into the water and tenderise their meal into manageable chunks. With barely a chance to catch their breath.
This double whammy of a high energy demand during their attacks and a low oxygen supply during their underwater stalking may go some way to explain why the lactic acid tolerance of crocodiles is so high. And with the toll it would take on their existing energy reserves, it’s no wonder they have such voracious appetites.
The lives of animals are full of choices that are influenced by how best to spend their energy reserves and this can lead to behaviours that would otherwise seem odd. Predators can ignore food sources that are too difficult to crack and prey can choose to ignore the first whispers of danger rather than lose valuable feeding time over a false alarm. Sometimes, parents will even abandon, or consume their current batch of young in hope that their future offspring will prove to be a better investment. Just like any human entrepreneur, animals often have to take risks by making, or not making, an energy investment for a chance to reap the best rewards in life.
From a human perspective
Crocodiles are formidable hunters and they have been known to attack humans from time to time. Saltwater crocodiles and Nile crocodiles have racked up the highest number of attacks, both fatal and non-fatal, worldwide with a total of 1,350 and 1,005 attacks over the last ten years respectively. This sounds horrific, but these numbers average out at just over 230 attacks per year for both species combined, for a planet with billions of people. Like with sharks, the chances of being attacked by a crocodile are extremely remote and can be reduced further with little more than common sense.
But let us not forget that humans exploit crocodiles for their meat and skin, often in dedicated farms. From time to time, we also capture and relocate crocodiles to zoos, for research purposes and to move problematic individuals away from a populated area.
Since it’s rare for crocodiles to be taken away without a fight, the risk to the humans involved is obvious. But as the croc itself struggles against the ropes and nets, they build up a lot of lactic acid in their blood and muscles. It attempts to restrain the animal drag on too long, this build up can surpass even their astronomical tolerance with the crocodile eventually struggling itself to death. Sometimes, they may be captured alive only to succumb to the ordeal a short while later due to the oxygen not coming in fast enough to deal with the adverse effects on their body.
Thankfully, there have been attempts to develop new methods of capture that would make the whole experience less stressful for the crocodile. And probably less tense for their human captors as well.
A study published in 2003 trialed the use of ‘electrostunning’ on saltwater crocodiles (effectively applying a taser to the back of the neck). Compared to manual restraint alone (in this case noosing the animals with rope), the electrostunned crocodiles didn’t experience as much of a build up in lactic acid, or in other telltale chemicals in the blood. There was still a build up regardless of what method was used, as there would have been some maneuvering involved to get the crocs from the electrostunned group into position.
A later study applied a similar test, but on Nile crocodiles, stating outright that different crocodile species might react differently to electrostunning. In the end, they also concluded that electrostunning was better than manual restraint (albeit for different reasons) for welfare of the animals and the safety of their human handlers. In a dramatic twist, someone was actually bitten while grappling with one of these crocodiles from the manual restraint group.
Pitted against each other in a straightforward fight, a human being would not last long against a fully grown crocodile. But in the real world, our ingenuity has firmly shifted the balance in our favour thanks to a few millennia of technological advancements. So bolstered are we by boats, chemical formulas and electrical appliances that we don’t always need to kill everything in sight, even when they have powerful muscles and sharp teeth. A concept that would have seemed impossible to our caveman ancestors.
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