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Virginia Aquarium expecting endangered crocodile eggs to hatch this summer

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Virginia Aquarium
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Wendy Nelson
A tomistoma eyes the camera.

Staff at the Virginia Aquarium are keeping a watchful eye on over a dozen white eggs expected to hatch this summer.

It will be cause for celebration since they were laid by an animal that’s threatened worldwide, but the rest of us might feel a little nervous as 14 baby tomistomas arrive.

Tomistomas are endangered fresh water crocodiles native to Indonesia and Malaysia. Like orangutans and other rainforest creatures their habitat is being destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations, so the Virginia Aquarium was thrilled to acquire a male and female.

"Mom’s name is Summer, and Dad’s name is Rolf – named after Rolf Summerlad, a pioneer of tomistoma conservation," says Colin Walker, assistant curator of reptiles and amphibians, from tiny frogs and turtles to these massive crocs.

"A female tomistoma will top out at around 10-12 feet long and about 300 pounds, whereas males can reach 16, 17, 18 feet and weigh in excess of 500 pounds."

Today, he’s serving lunch to Summer.

"She’ll be getting a mix of rats, chicks and quail today – pre-killed, frozen and shipped to us," Walker explains. "So we just have to pull them out and thaw them the day before we feed."

"The sign says, ‘Do not enter. Dangerous animal area.’ Just how dangerous are these crocodiles," asks reporter Sandy Hausman.

"So they are crocodiles, and even though they are relatively shy, elusive, tend to avoid people, once they associate people with a food source, they get a lot more bold, a lot more brave," Walker replies. "And so it is very dangerous for an untrained person to enter into that area."

And the risk is higher since Summer laid a clutch of eggs. Even the father who fertilized them can’t get close.

"Since nesting our female has gotten quite defensive of her nest area, and so she really doesn’t appreciate anybody going near it including Rolf, so for his own safety he is in our off-exhibit holding space," he says.

But Walker assures me it will be safe to accompany him into the enclosure where Summer swims and lounges poolside.

"Generally up on land they are not very agile. They’re not very quick," he adds. "They’re definitely much more geared towards an aquatic lifestyle. They actually have the shortest leg to body size ratio of any crocodilian, so they really don’t move very fast once they’re on land.

So, your dedicated public radio reporter puts on a pair of steel-toed boots and prepares to meet the fearsome creature – who looks much like an alligator but has a pointed snout, and at least 76 teeth.
The name Tomistoma comes from the Greek for sharp mouth, and these critters are stronger and more aggressive than gators.

"Okay, so you are going to be behind me at all times, and if I say, 'get out!' You’re the first one out the door," Walker says. "Done," replies Hausman.

"She’s kind of up in a push-up position. That is her being defensive. You can see her throat area is kind of fluttering in and out. We may see some bubbles forming in the corners of her eyes. That can be a signal of aggravation or excitement, so this is a time we’re going to be really, really careful with her," Walker says. "She actually spun a 180 just as I approached the nest, so she’s very, very defensive right now, but we’ll see how she behaves.

In the end, she behaved very nicely, ignoring me in favor of lunch. She played tug-of-war with Walker as he extended each dead creature on a stick.

"In the wild if they’re taking down larger prey items they wouldn’t swallow it whole," he says. "They would tear chunks of it off, so we’re trying to recreate that a little bit."

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Virginia Aquarium
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Wendy Nelson
Tomistoma eggs

Ironically, Summer is defending a nest that’s actually devoid of eggs. Keepers have removed and placed them in two different incubators.

"The warmer the nest is, the more males you’re likely to hatch. The cooler the nest is, the more females you’re likely to hatch out, so we actually have two different incubators with two different temperature settings – one aiming for males, one aiming for females," Walker explains. "Our males should be hatching out in the first couple of weeks of August, and the females should hatch out toward the end of August, maybe early September."

Zoos and aquariums around the country are checking-in – asking to adopt one of the babies, but the Virginia Beach facility is not counting tomistomas before they hatch. Walker and his colleagues will have to decide whether to drive the animals to new homes or make use of the service that delivered Summer from her home on a crocodile farm in Malaysia.

"I believe she was shipped via FedEx, but she had human keepers accompanying her the entire way," Walker says.

You can see Summer seven days a week from the safe side of the glass at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.