Book review – Tears for Crocodilia: Evolution, Ecology, and the Disappearance of One of the World’s Most Ancient Animals

7-minute read
keywords: evolution, herpetology, zoology

Being of the large and toothy kind, crocodiles have a bit of a public relations problem. Fortunately for them, people such as biologist Zach Fitzner fight their corner. For Tears for Crocodilia, he has gone to great lengths to give the reader a well-rounded picture of crocodilians (the name for the order; its living members are divided over three families: alligators & caimans, true crocodiles, and gharials). This ambitious and wide-ranging debut draws on scientific literature to give a primer on their biology, on personal experience working in and travelling to different countries to introduce the main groups, and on interviews with scientists, zookeepers, and conservationists to include a wide range of viewpoints.

Tears for Crocodilia

Tears for Crocodilia: Evolution, Ecology, and the Disappearance of One of the World’s Most Ancient Animals, written by Zach Fitzner, published by Westholme Publishing in May 2022 (hardback, 272 pages)

Fitzner currently works at a commercial studio that prepares fossils and sells replicas, so palaeontology and evolution are a logical starting point. Crocodilians are often considered ancient and primitive reptiles, their appearance having changed little over millions of years. Media darlings such as the giant extinct croc Deinosuchus have contributed to this. An extended conversation with palaeontologist Adam Cossette clarifies that, yes, some ancient crocodiles resemble today’s but many more groups did not. The crocodylomorph lineage was spectacularly diverse and included animals running around on their hind legs, duking it out with early theropod dinosaurs for the position of top predator. Conversely, some unrelated creatures, including the large amphibian Prionosuchus, looked for all the world like crocodilians before crocodilians had evolved. So, let the primitive looks not deceive you: “alligators, crocodiles, and their kin are not living holdovers of some fantastic lost world of the past; like every living thing they are part of the modern world” (p. 9).

What I liked about this and the following four biology chapters is exactly this careful attitude, making sure not to overstate things. When discussing the various senses of crocodiles, including infrasound communication and the unique nerve pits in their skin that allow them to sense pressure and possibly even temperature and pH, he warns that we will never be able to truly grasp what it is like to be a crocodile. However, “through careful observation we can perhaps understand a crocodile’s skin, if not what it’s like to live in that skin” (p. 45). This very much echoes Ed Yong’s approach in his recent book An Immense World which draws on Jakob von Uexküll’s concept of an animal’s Umwelt. He is similarly circumspect when discussing intelligence. Numerous anecdotal and published observations suggest crocodiles are smart, but our research approach is often biased; we tend to look “for intelligence as we define it, a type of human or mammalian cleverness that may or may not be useful for reptiles” (p. 66). Comparisons of brain sizes and areas require similar care, Fitzner adds. Though reptilian brains have no neocortex, they have a well-developed dorsal ventricular ridge that might have a parallel function and be a case of convergent evolution. Scientists have furthermore been slow to acknowledge that crocodilians, and reptiles more generally, have rich social lives. Though this part of the book is not intended as a complete and utter review of crocodilian biology, it whets your appetite if you wanted to dig deeper.

“What I liked about [the evolution] and the following four biology chapters is exactly [Fitzner’s] careful attitude, making sure not to overstate things.”

The next significant section of the book focuses on the four main groups alive today: alligators, caimans, crocodiles, and gharials. These chapters contain further natural history and biology observations unique to each of these groups but also focus on conservation concerns. Fitzner has had first-hand encounters with at least some representative species of each group, whether through past volunteering work or field courses, or through recent visits, e.g. trying to find gharials in Nepal. My impression is that he has gone out of his way to talk to conservationists and project managers working on the ground. I was pleasantly surprised, for instance, to read about Merlijn van Weerd’s work with the Mabuwaya Foundation which is conserving the critically endangered Philippine crocodile. I spoke to Merlijn myself some years ago about making their book The Philippine Crocodile available to a wider audience. Encouragingly, their model of community-based crocodile conservation is being applied in other parts of the world.

Fitzner is outspoken when it comes to the threats to crocodilians: “the expansion of infrastructure, pulled along by human population growth, will leave less room for crocodilians everywhere” (p. 195). Habitat destruction, both in the developed and developing world, is the main culprit, more so than targeted killing. “We save small parks, forests and riverways while ignoring the true impact of our global economic system and growing consumption” (p. 204). The tragedy is that the few species whose populations are recovering have nowhere to return to. In the USA, alligators spill out of the little remaining wilderness of the Everglades onto golf courses and farms where they are readily killed, while the Chinese alligator is almost extinct in the wild, even as thousands of individuals linger in captive breeding facilities without plans to create wildlife refuges to return them to. Fitzner is sombre, writing of human greed, overreach, and unwillingness to share the planet. It is too easy to dismiss this as misanthropy. Ever since Islands of Abandonment introduced me to the concept of disanthropy (the yearning for the absence or negation of humans), I feel this better describes what many biologists and conservationists feel. Surprisingly, in light of Fitzner’s tone thus far, he seems oddly reticent to speak out against crocodile farming. In the last chapter, he gives equal airtime to conservationists in favour and against sustainable harvesting but never openly puts his nickel down. Reading between the lines I get the impression he dithers between “dislike” and “it’s complicated”. Regardless, it is an eye-opening look into what he calls “the machinery of modern conservation” (p. 209).

“Fitzner is outspoken when it comes to the threats to crocodilians […] Habitat destruction, both in the developed and developing world, is the main culprit [….] The tragedy is that the few species whose populations are recovering have nowhere to return to”

Most material in this book is the standard fare you would expect a biologist to write about. I was impressed, therefore, that Fitzner steps out of his comfort zone and includes two chapters on the role of crocodilians in anthropology and mythology. To my surprise, the idea that our ancestors were on the menu of predators is only reluctantly accepted by anthropologists, though one is interviewed here who argues that certain fossil human bones show crocodile bite marks. Fitzner also throws in some interesting reflections of his own on the contrast between “our narrow Western perspective” (p. 170) that sees the world in terms of “natural resources”, and the perspective of other cultures that see a relationship of give-and-take between humans and non-humans. His chapter on mythology focuses on crocodile worship in ancient Egypt, wisely bringing in an expert who did their PhD on exactly this topic to provide context, before turning to examples of crocodile-related rituals and superstitions in other tribes and cultures, and ending with some interesting personal musings.

Tears for Crocodilia is richly illustrated with 56 photos, illustrations, and maps. One minor nitpick is the occasional awkward sentence that needs rereading to be understood, though this barely detracts. Overall, Fitzner manages to synthesize information from a wide range of sources in a balanced fashion in under 230 pages. This is an impressive and impassioned debut.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Tears for Crocodilia

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:




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