The Dandy along the Daintree
COVID-19 wreaking havoc in Italy, the government woefully unprepared for a second wave, a new lockdown looming in the (ever closer) distance, the never-fast-enough process of double-blind peer review on my first research paper making me feel like Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot. Such is life as I write this piece, which thankfully gives us the opportunity to mind-travel all the way back to the Daintree rainforest in northern Australia and its otherworldly galore of biodiversity. Back two months ago, we left off with Lizzie’s ravishing silhouette slowly disappearing behind the boat while David (our guide, in case you forgot) went on explaining that among the area’s resident saltwater crocodiles, one in particular stood at the very top of the hierarchy. The dominant male of that vast stretch of land and water was always on patrol duty, defending his territory and his numerous mates (including Lizzie herself) from any rival foolish enough to challenge him. According to David, this dragon of the Wet Tropics was a relatively frequent sight on the Solar Whisper tours, but his presence could not be taken for granted- after all, he can’t be everywhere at once with such a large kingdom to protect. However, the rainforest once again decided to treat us with favor.
“That is Scarface”, David said, pointing at a colossal figure of a crocodile laying halfway between land and water not far from Lizzie’s sunbathing spot. “He’s the king around here”. Once we got closer, everyone could easily understand why. Scarface was so much larger than Lizzie, in length (4.6 m compared to just over 3) and especially in raw bulk. Although it is not uncommon for saltwater crocodiles to grow past 5 m (the longest individual in captivity, Lolong, reached a whopping 6.1 m before his untimely death in 2013), Scarface was- and still is- by far the biggest gun in his territory. To get to the top, he had to fight his way up for most of his 60 years of age- he owes his very name to the scars he carries from countless battles with other males, first to conquer his territory and later to defend it. The most evident sign of his turbulent life, however, is undoubtedly inside his mouth: in fact, Scarface is virtually toothless. How come, you might be wondering? After all, crocodilians have insane teeth regeneration abilities- they routinely replace their teeth after breaking them or wearing them out, which in theory ensures a constant turnover throughout life. However, when ambitious guys like Scarface butt heads with other big crocs so frequently (not a casual choice of words, that is literally how they most often fight), their “gums” and tooth-generating tissue can suffer irreparable damage to the point where lost teeth cannot be replaced anymore. Make no mistake though: Scarface doesn’t need his teeth to be a top predator. In fact, the sheer strength of his jaws is enough to hold any prey in an inescapable clutch, and his size alone would likely discourage any smaller opponent from challenging him. This is what people normally think of when asked to picture a crocodile- a huge behemoth with an insatiable appetite that survived virtually unchanged since the age of the dinosaurs and devours anything it finds in its path. The question is, how accurate is this depiction?
As a growing body of paleontological and ecological evidence suggests, not too much. The idea of crocodiles as “living fossils” (a term most paleontologists loathe in the first place) is disproven by the wealth of extinct crocodylomorphs that roamed- and at times ruled- the world in past eras. There were fully terrestrial species like Kaprosuchus saharicus, many of which had legs made for running and chasing much like a leopard or a wolf rather than living crocodilians; monsters like Purussaurus brasiliensis, the largest crocodilian known to man- this beast of a caiman could reach 13-15 m and lurked in the Amazon waters around 50 mya; even herbivorous representatives that switched to a plant-based diet, such as Simosuchus clarki. The lineage that gave rise to modern crocodilians was but one of many other crocodylomorph clades with a great variety of ecological adaptations, which unfortunately are all extinct today. Besides, even the 27 living species we currently share our planet with are so much more ecologically diverse than you might think. For starters, not all crocodilians are apex predators- on the contrary, many species don’t grow larger than 3 m at best and a few only reach half that, which makes them good meat for other carnivores such as big cats and giant snakes even as fully grown adults. Furthermore, even huge crocodilians like the saltie and the Nile crocodile have a diet mostly based on fish and other small vertebrates, whereas large prey items (e.g. zebras, antelopes, cattle) only make up a smaller percentage in general. Granted, big crocodiles and alligators are more than capable of taking down equally big prey- as a matter of fact, such animals provide a great supply of food that can sustain a crocodile for far longer than an endothermic big carnivore (say, a lion) due to the lower energy expenditure characteristic of an ectothermic metabolism. There is still so much we don’t know about crocodilians, which of course makes me love them all the more from a scientific point of view.
Sitting in the presence of a juggernaut like Scarface was already worth all the time and money we invested into the trip. Looking at him, it seemed inconceivable to us that any smaller male crocodile would dare venture into his territory- if you consider that usually it’s the oldest and biggest who rule the place, crocodile land is indeed a country for old men. However, rising stars have definitely made their presence known on Days of the Daintree.
This was the case for Scuter, a young bachelor in his early twenties we found laying comfortably under the shade of a tree on the same bank where Scarface was enjoying the early afternoon sun. Young as he was, Scuter’s body appeared youthfully unscathed compared to the scars and bumps we had observed all over Scarface’s silhouette- not to mention his nearly complete roster of teeth, of course. On the same note, if you look closely at Scuter’s mischievously “smiling” jaws, you’ll notice one of the most intriguing features of crocodilian physiology. In fact, those tiny black dots that punctuate his scales are integumentary sensory organs (ISOs), also known as dermal pressure receptors (DPRs) able to detect the slightest perturbation in the water. These receptors are thought to serve as cues for orientation towards a source of disturbance in the water– for instance, a fish swimming nearby that would make a delicious meal. Crocodilian DPRs are more sensitive to tactile stimuli than primate fingertips, which makes them suitable for other purposes as well such as determining whether an item is edible or not. To think that an animal so (excessively) notorious for thunderous outbursts of brutal force such as a large crocodile is actually capable of extremely delicate and careful contact to assess its surroundings truly exemplifies how fascinating and poorly appreciated these reptiles are.
As Scarface proves, the world of crocodiles is not exactly merciful- the king won’t stand for any male old enough to breed setting foot into his territory. How come, then, that Scuter was allowed to enjoy his time not only within Scarface’s territory, but a mere few meters from the big bad elder? The explanation David offered was that maybe Scarface still deemed Scuter too young to make a move on his mates. Plausible perhaps, but admittedly unlikely according to David himself- in fact, the youngster’s dashing looks had already made him quite the dandy along the Daintree, which Lizzie in particular greatly appreciated. The real reason would come under the spotlight a few months later with a twist nobody could have possibly foreseen, as Scuter was indeed caught in a particularly intimate moment… with Scarface. Yes, you read that right. This led David to question Scuter’s sex, which was supposedly determined by rangers a few years ago but might have been a case of misidentification. Be that as it may, it is not impossible for two male crocodilians to engage in sexual intercourse- not to mention that even if Scuter was a female, her “affair” with Lizzie would still amount to same-sex mating. Granted, the fact that Scarface might well be Scuter’s own father may shift the vibe from Call Me By Your Name to Game of Thrones quickly enough, but this huge plot twist is nonetheless a stark reminder that examples of same-sex behavior abound in the animal kingdom. From penguins through parrots and lions all the way to primates, not to mention fishes, gastropods, and lizards, the attribution of a particular sexual behavior/preference or even a particular sex per se to an individual entails much more than a clear-cut either/or. For the time being, I will happily abide to David’s recommendation against sex-profiling Scuter until we know for sure which one it is. Hell, what does it even matter- with a jawline like that and such stunning eyes, no wonder this one caught the interest of both sides.
With the extraordinary tale of the young dandy along the Daintree, our cruise on this arguably mystical river came to and end. To my most pleasant surprise, Eli and Mari, my Argentinian friends whom I still owe for making it possible for me to reach the Daintree rainforest in the first place, were as happy as I was. Okay fine, maybe not that ectsatic but still visibly impressed by what we had just experienced. Even if only for an hour, entering the depths of the rainforest felt like embarking on a trip back in time to the Mesozoic, when the entire ecosystem around the Daintree first arose. However, we were no more than tourists on a short guided trip, which inevitably only allowed us to catch a minuscule glimpse of the dynamics at play in such a unique environment- dynamics not only ecological, but social as well.
When we think of nature, we most often tend to assume the term in itself implies a landscape/seascape devoid of people, a pristine patch of paradise that never experienced human interference. This strict dichotomy between nature and culture has long been a core component of the Western mindset, which has historically perceived nature either as a foe to conquer in the name of civilization or as an untouched treasure to protect from human interference of any sort at all costs. The latter vision grew ingrained into conservation practices and guidelines since the early days of the discipline, as best testified by the school of thought led by naturalists like John Muir. While this approach to conservation is certainly not devoid of merit, it neglects the human dimension of nature by drawing an invalicable divide between all things human and all things natural- a divide that is simply not there, nor arguably should be. As a matter of fact, many if not most of the ecosystems we consider pristine are far from it- humans had been living there for millennia before European colonizers arrived, changing the landscape and even the local climate over time. The “pristine myth” frequently leads to erroneus assumptions about the extent and the consequences of human influence on ecosystems, which can be deleterious or beneficial depending on the case. This holds for John Muir’s beloved forests in the United States, the Amazon basin, the African savannas, and- you guessed it- the Wet Tropics of Queensland. Right where the Daintree river cuts its way through the forest, the Kuku Yalanji people found their home tens of thousands of years ago- and haven’t left since, despite the genocide (both direct and indirect) perpetrated by colonial authorities.
Nowadays, while much work remains to be done, at least the ancestral Kuku Yalanji ownership of these lands is increasingly recognized- David himself does it explicitly on the Solar Whisper tours website. Indigenous communities have relied on the land and the river for food and shelter, have worshipped the crocodiles and likely came into conflict with them at times, have built an entire body of traditions and knowledge based on what they experienced in that corner of the world. The Aboriginal system of religious tales and beliefs, which relies so heavily on nature and biodiversity as a background and even as protagonists, is commonly referred to as the Dreamtime. It would be absurd of an ignorant tourist like me to even try to explain what exactly it consists of, so let it suffice that I find the name most appealing and quite reflective of places like the Daintree. More than that, perhaps all of this- the thriving nature, the majesty of crocodiles, the illusion of wilderness and constant influence of man (be it positive or negative)- is a reminder that even our strongest certainties can turn out to be much less accurate and real than we like to think, rooted both in fantasy and truth. I would even go as far as to suggest that this might ultimately be the very definition of conservation: the delicate intersection between dream and reality.