Size Matters

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 26 No. 10, October 2006

By Janaki Lenin

Kalia had eaten quite a few people (mostly women) in his lifetime. He was estimated to be a 23 to 24 footer (7.01 to 7.32 m.) who ruled a 10-mile (16.7 km.) stretch of the Dhamra River in Bhitarkanika. The then Raja of Kanika wrote in 1973 that this unusually dark-skinned reptile eluded shikaris including his grandfather and father for 50 years. Kalia was eventually shot in 1926 by the captain of a ship on a run from Chandbali to Calcutta. The injured reptile crawled onto the banks, taking shelter in the reeds and dry grass. Seizing the opportunity, the villagers set fire to the vegetation, killing the croc.

For several years, Kalia’s skull welcomed visitors to the palace in Rajkanika, while the bangles and anklets found in his belly were displayed on a table, gruesome reminders of a horrific period in the region’s history. J.C. Daniel and S.A. Hussain of the Bombay Natural History Society were the first to measure the saltwater crocodile’s skull in 1973 and reported that it was the largest crocodile skull in the world at 100 cm. 

Robert Bustard and Romulus Whitaker wanted an accurate figure and in 1974, they went up to Bhitarkanika to measure the skull. It was hanging way up on the wall out of reach and it wasn’t a simple job getting it down. Using a stick they came up with 98 cm. Years later, Rom realised that they had made a mistake. Instead of measuring the skull from snout tip to occiput (back of the head of the upper jaw), they had measured it all the way to the back of the lower jaw, a mistake that several people continue to make thus confusing the issue of crocodile morphology.

The measurement of crocodile skulls must be precise because crocodile biologists use it to extrapolate the size of the entire animal. The length of the skull (measured along the median line from the tip of the snout to the back of the occiput) is multiplied by seven to arrive at the animal’s total length. Scientists came up with this equation after measuring hundreds of alligators in the United States and biologists around the world began using it to estimate the lengths of most species of crocodiles. 

Romulus Whitaker and his friend Vinny worked hard to preserve Kalia’s skull. After brushing and cleaning, a chemical, Butvar, dissolved in acetone, was poured over the skull. The preservative soaked into all the cracks, crevices and pores, virtually encasing it to ensure that the skull lasts another century or more. 

Although there have been several reports of bigger crocodiles shot in Australia – one was estimated to be 27 ft. (8.23 m.) – there is not a shred of evidence (skull, skin or photograph) to prove the hunters’ claims. In the 19th century, a monstrous 33-ft. (10.06-m.) croc was reportedly shot in Bengal and the skull lodged at the British Museum of Natural History. When the skull was measured it was only 60 cm. in length, however, and simple arithmetic put the animal at 13.78 ft. (4.20 m.). 

For a couple of decades, Rom tried unsuccessfully to access Kalia’s skull and in recent years, he began to fret that it might have disintegrated. Through Aurodam David in Auroville, we finally met Prince Shivendra Bhanjdeo, the Yuvaraj of Kanika. He confirmed Rom’s worries – the skull was indeed falling apart and he wanted assistance in preserving it. Rom, in turn, sought the help of Dr. Russ McCarty, palaeontologist and a professional preserver of bones at the Florida State Museum in Gainesville. He recommended a substance called Butvar (polyvinyl butyral). It wasn’t available in India, so friends kindly brought over a pound of the white crystals.

Earlier this year, we went up to Bhubaneshwar where the skull had since been moved. It wasn’t in as bad a shape as we had feared – the sutures holding the various parts of the skull were still intact. A slice of the upper jaw was missing (as it was even in the 1973 photograph). The captain must have shot the animal through the body. The skull had to be cleaned thoroughly and an enterprising businessman friend, Vinny, took charge of the dirty work – alternately brushing and pumping jets of air with a bicycle pump, he managed to get most of the grit out. It was impossible to reach the crevices and the tooth sockets, so he hauled it off to the local tire puncture fixer. The bewildered mechanics took action only because Vinny barked orders. The skull looked several shades whiter after being air-blasted. The Butvar had to be dissolved in acetone (without forming lumps, just like good gravy) and the thick glue brushed on the skull. An iron tub of adequate size was found and with the heavy skull levered by a long bamboo pole, the Butvar was poured over it. The preservative soaked into all the cracks, crevices and pores, virtually encasing it, now the skull will last another century if not more.

Finally, the moment Rom had been waiting for, for 30 years arrived. The tip of the snout to the occiput measured only 73.3 cm. We added three centimetres for the four per cent shrinkage when the skull dried out, and checked and double-checked the measurements. There is no doubt about it, by using the standard ratio for crocodile head length to total body length, Kalia would have measured 17.52 ft. (5.34 m.), significantly short of the 23-24 footer that he was claimed to be.

Some experts, however, are doubtful that the 1:7 ratio can be applied universally. While the ratio is consistent in alligators, it varies wildly in crocodiles. In 1979, while Rom was doing a crocodile survey in Papua New Guinea, tribal hunters proudly showed him the skin of a crocodile that measured 20.34 ft. (6.2 m.). The fresh skull was 72 cm. long, making it a 1:8.6 ratio. The behemoth had drowned in a tiny barramundi net. 

Romulus holds up the skull of Kalia (above), a giant croc that dominated a 16.7 km. stretch of the Dhamra River in Bhitarkanika. The skull is now exhibited in Bhubaneshwar. By the standard skull to total body length ratio, Kalia would have measured around 17.52 ft. (5.34 m.), significantly short of the 23-24 footer (seven metres) claimed. During his crocodile survey in Papua New Guinea in 1979, tribal hunters showed Rom (below, standing at six feet in the centre) this 20.34 ft. (6.2 m.) long crocodilian skin (below). The fresh skull was 72 cm. long, at a ratio of 1:8.6 ratio.

In another instance, Australian croc biologist Grahame Webb measured a saltwater croc skull belonging to a freshly-killed 20.18 ft. (6.15 m.) animal. This ratio of 1:9.23 made Kalia a whopping 23.11 ft. (7.04 m.), closer to the Raja of Kanika’s claims. As a final test, we measured the closest giant at hand, Jaws III, at the Madras Crocodile Bank. The ratio was 1:9. The emerging theory is that young crocodiles may follow the 1:7 ratio, but that as they grow older, the skull doesn’t keep up with the rest of the body. At 35+ years of age, they reach 1:9. If we could estimate these growth changes, it would be relatively simple to estimate the age of crocs.

Recently, we traced the skull of a false gharial from Borneo to the Munich Museum. It measured 81 cm. (snout tip to occiput). So the current record holder for the largest crocodilian skull in the world is not a saltwater crocodile (the traditional favourite) but an endangered long-snouted, freshwater reptile. It seems likely that none of these ratios would apply to gharials and false gharials, so we can only speculate what length the Bornean false gharial reached. 

Among crocodiles, however, the largest skull, measuring 76 cm., belonged to a saltwater crocodile from Cambodia, now at the Paris Museum. The second largest skull (73.5 cm.) is of an American crocodile at the American Museum of Natural History, New York and the Kanika skull ranks third in the world. There may yet be other larger skulls collecting dust in private collections but until they are measured, all stories of humungous crocodiles remain in the realm of old hunters’ tales.

The crocodile census conducted in Bhitarkanika in January indicated the presence of a 23 ft. (7.01 m.) crocodile; it would be interesting to measure his vital statistics! Given the high degree of protection the Crocodile Sanctuary enjoys from the Orissa Forest Department, it seems that this is one of the few places on the planet where these giant crocodiles will continue to rule into the 22nd century.

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