The death of a gigantic Queensland crocodile could lead to civil war at a crocodile farm

The death of a gigantic Queensland crocodile could lead to civil war at a crocodile farm

Few things alive on Earth in 2017 are as awe-inducing and fearsome as a 17-foot-long crocodile. Longer than most cars, those prehistoric jaws are built to never let go once they've clamped down on a nice slab of human leg. A 17-foot saltwater crocodile is the biggest Queensland has seen in 30 years, but as of last Thursday, it's turned up dead in the Fitzroy river.

The cause? A bullet was fired into its head. It will be laid to rest in the Koorana crocodile farm. Who killed it? For what reason? Well, the bullet came from a “fairly large-calibre rifle”, and John Leaver, the owner of the crocodile farm, said “I would say that someone felt very threatened."

Still, it's tragic to see such a massive and distinguished animal be killed. Though when it comes to a saltwater Australian crocodile, I can't blame anyone for not wanting to take chances. The problem is what comes next - for the crocodile's home and species, his untimely death is a disaster.

When the top croc dies, a feverish frenzy of young males swarms to occupy the top position. Having one crocodile who patrols the area, like an alpha, has a calming effect on the entire crocodile population of the region. These natural hierarchies crop up in mammals and reptiles alike, though more research is trying to determine exactly how crocodile societies react to losing their alpha. Even relocating a crocodile can upset the whole region, and invader crocs from other communities can step in, trying to take over.

About the massive 17-foot croc, Leaver, who ran a crocodile removal service for two decades, said: “There may have been some others shot in the wild that we don’t know about, but from my recollection, over the past three decades this would be the largest."

He says the largest crocodile he ever caught was 4.95 meters, from the 1980s. That would be about sixteen feet. There are not often crocodiles who grow larger than five meters. The crocodile who was killed was estimated to have been 'between 80 and 100 years old', which is normal for a croc. Reptiles can grow to absurd ages, even older than humans.

Michael Joyce, an operations director at the Queensland’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, said that the living crocodiles may begin to turn on one another. “The whole thing could be over in 24 hours; at other times it could take months to see a slight move in the population."

A crocodile civil war sounds pretty brutal. We hope that the toll of losing their strongest member doesn't destroy the whole group, or that more will have to die as a consequence. But the life of a reptile is rather rough anyway. They sink low to the ground, inches from mud their entire lives, eating flesh and hissing away rivals. Crocodiles occupy a world so different from ours that their first-person perspective may resemble an alien planet.

Sadly, the body of the giant croc was left where it was shot for a few days before someone noticed. Hunting saltwater crocodiles is illegal, so the death of the animal continues to be investigated.