The Orinoco Crocodile

The Orinoco Crocodile

By Susana Cortázar

A critically endangered crocodile native to the freshwater Orinoco River (hence its name) in Colombia and Venezuela, the Orinoco crocodile is recognizable by its long, sharp snout and yellowish hide with dark brown bands.  They have beautiful pale green eyes you could stare into for hours. Adults measure a whopping 9.9 – 16 feet in length, with males weighing approximately 837 pounds and females a mere 440 pounds!

Orinoco crocodiles mate during dry periods and the female digs a nest on a sand bank 14 weeks after mating.  The incubation period for the eggs is approximately three months and when they hatch, the newborns call to their mother who digs them out of the nest and carries them into the water.  Mothers defend the babies for their first year, as they are at the mercy of black vultures, lizards, anacondas, caimans, and other predators. 

The Orinoco crocodile’s biggest threat?  Man – who hunts it for its hide.  Between the 1940s and 1960s, thousands of these crocodiles were slaughtered in the Orinoco River, which resulted in their numbers plummeting to near extinction.  With protection status awarded in the 1970s, it is now thankfully a protected animal in Colombia and Venezuela.

What do these massive animals feed on?  Mostly fish, but they will eat just about anything if hungry enough.  However, as this species is remotely isolated from human habitation, attacks on humans are very unlikely and rare, unless one ventures into their territory.
 Sean Shaheem-Juman and Kevin Kopf feed Orinoco crocodile
Zoo Miami has five Orinoco crocodiles on exhibit at its Amazon and Beyond’s Flooded Forest.  Their diet consists of mice, rats, rabbits, and fish.  And you know it can’t possibly be easy to feed five crocodiles at once.  So how do their keepers manage? According to zookeeper Kevin Kopf, “we feed each croc one at a time using cues.  Our cues for the crocs are three taps with a long prod on the edge of the pool, where they are fed.  When each one responds correctly to the cues, he is rewarded with food from tongs that the keeper holds.  We feed them twice a week and each croc gets either two food items or one rabbit.”  Which they quickly devour, by the way.

Keepers at Zoo Miami are well aware of the dangers of coming face-to-face with these strong and aggressive animals, and although it is necessary for the keepers to do so during feeding time for cue training, “two keepers are always present in the holding pen with the crocs for the keepers’ safety,” says Kevin.  When the exhibit needs cleaning, all five crocodiles are taken to the back area and kept isolated until the keepers are done.

Zoo Miami’s Orinoco crocodiles are males, came from the same clutch, and are six years old.  Since these animals have been known to live up to 80 years in captivity, our guys still have a long way to go!

Many people confuse alligators and crocodiles.  I guess at first glance they look the same, but there are many obvious differences between them.  The alligators’ snout is rounder and when their mouth is closed, you cannot see their teeth.  On the other hand, crocodiles have a sharp snout and their many teeth are visible even when their mouth is closed.

Now that your interest in the Orinoco crocodile has, hopefully, been piqued, unless you’re planning a trip to Colombia and/or Venezuela soon, why not come to Zoo Miami and see our Orinoco crocodiles at Amazon and Beyond.

 Photos by Susana Cortázar