Crocodiles and alligators eat meat — red or white, fresh and bloody or rotten and stinky. When croc biologists noticed seeds in the stomachs of dead crocs and excreted in croc poo, they were dismissive. The reptiles eat fruit-eaters and herbivores, and the seeds likely came from the preys’ stomachs. Even when they found seeds of 16 species in 265 alligator stomachs, biologists collectively labelled it “plant material.”
Some witnessed crocs eating floating fruits. Perhaps the animals mistook them for insects, the scientists reasoned. They didn’t wonder why reptiles with a superb sense of smell and taste gobble up fruit. Then researchers from Brazil reported that captive, broad-snouted caimans ate the fruits of a creeper. They surmised insects buzzing around the fruit may have attracted the crocodiles that inadvertently chomped the whole thing. But the caimans readily ate insect-free fruit. Did the reptiles learn to eat “plant material” from their fruit-eating enclosure mates, tegu lizards?
In 2002, John Brueggen of St. Augustine Alligator Farm, Florida, reported that both American and Chinese gators ate romaine lettuce and yellow squash. When elderberries were in fruit, they ate whole mouthfuls. Some plucked kumquats directly off trees and chomped them up. Brueggen wondered if captive crocs suffered from nutritional deficiency which made them eat seemingly unnatural croc food.
Last year, Tom Dacey, the executive officer of the IUCN’s Crocodile Specialist Group, noted that a wild Siamese croc ate a watermelon in Lao PDR.
How widespread is fruit-eating among crocodilians?
Sifting through croc literature, a group of eight American biologists found that of the 18 species of crocodilians, 13 had fleshy fruits, berries, nuts, legumes, and grains in their stomachs. In a report published in August 2013, they said as many as 11 studies on American alligators alone recorded plant material in the animals’ guts. Among their favourite fruits is the alligator apple, related to custard apple. Other sought-after fruits include passion fruit, squash, and prickly pear. According to villagers in Belize, Morelet’s and American crocodiles eat alligator pears, also called avocadoes, and alligator apples.
Do any Indian species of crocodiles go on a fruit-eating binge?
A 1915 report claimed mugger ate rice grains. In 1938, Humayun Abdulali wrote of a mugger eating fallen figs. Saltwater crocodiles had unidentified seeds in their gut.
Crocs aren’t the only carnivores to eat fruit. Jackals eat peanuts, jujube, dates, and jamun. In Gujarat, a pair of leopards are said to have destroyed 60 watermelons in a field in one night. Brown palm civets live on a predominantly fruit diet, earning it the distinction of being one of the most frugivorous (fruit-eating) carnivores in the world. ‘Frugivorous carnivore’ sounds like a contradiction.
Carnivores are meat-eaters. But the scientific classification of life forms includes an order of mammals called Carnivora, a huge group of weasels, civets, dogs, cats, bears, mongooses, and seals. The distinguishing character is not what they eat but the presence of claws, canines, and molars. While most of them are carnivores, a few are exceptions like bamboo-eating giant pandas.
I once reared a group of spectacled caiman hatchlings in an enclosure with young Indian star tortoises. I fed the caimans minced meat and fish, and offered a plate of green leaves, hibiscus flowers, carrots, and pumpkins to the tortoises. The caimans polished off their feed, but the tortoises seemed to dislike their food. I tried tomatoes, a succulent creeper called Devil’s backbone, mushrooms, and prickly pear, but nothing worked.
I returned to the enclosure late one evening, looking for my keys. All the tortoises were crowded around the minced fish. Disturbed by my arrival, a couple looked up with their mouths full. The plate of vegetarian fare remained untouched.
In 1946, a 13-foot python lay under a mango tree in a tea estate in Siliguri, swallowing a mango. Labourers killed the snake and found four more mangoes in its gut. On looking closer, they found each fruit had two or three insect larvae, the presumed reason for the python to prey on fruit.
Maybe the python loved mangoes.