There was a time not that long ago when you knew what you were dealing with when you were dealing with crocodiles – massive, dinosaur-like creatures that ate anything they wanted to, including humans and other crocodiles, and had a color that allowed them to blend into their surroundings like camouflaged killers. Then in 2008, researchers exploring the Abanda cave system in the central African country of Gabon found small orange crocs that ate bats which fell off the cave ceilings and crickets because that’s all that lived in the caves besides bats and orange crocs. Now, to the relief of other crocodiles concerned about their reputation as Earth’s last prehistoric predators, experts have determined that the orange bug-eaters are a separate species.
“We could say that we have a mutating species, because [the cave crocodile] already has a different [genetic] haplotype. Its diet is different and it is a species that has adapted to the underground world.”
Dr. Richard Oslisly, the archeologist who first discovered the cave crocs in 2008, was looking for artifacts of ancient Gabon when he stumbled upon the underground orange crocs. Encountering disbelief (no surprise), he returned in 2010 with cave scientist Olivier Testa and crocodile specialist Matthew Shirley, who helped him catch one and bring it into the sunlight where the orange color really stands out. It’s also where it became evident that the crocs were blind. Shirley thought it was an African dwarf crocodile that became trapped in the caves. They eventually found 30 orange crocs and believe more are hiding in the caves.
In 2016, Shirley determined that the orange color comes from spending so much time submerged in water loaded with bat guana, whose urea turns the water alkaline and changes the natural skin color. That made sense until Oslisly conducted tests on the DNA of the orange lizards. He expected to find it to be the same as the African dwarf crocodiles the researchers assumed that they were. That wasn’t the case.
“The [crocodiles in the] caves of Abanda stand out as an isolated genetic group.”
The tests showed that the orange crocodile DNA contains a set of genes not found in the non-cave-dwelling dwarf crocodiles – DNA that’s passed from generation to generation. Which brings up a question that leads to the kind of exploration that these researchers dream about: If these orange crocs are not African dwarfs that accidentally walk/fall into these cafes and turn orange in the bat guano muck, where are they having sex? Only 30 have been found and the caves lack the essentials for crocodile love – a wet season and rotting vegetation to bury their eggs in.
Now that we know that orange is the new croc (you knew it was coming), more research into the mystery of the orange crocodiles and their sex lives is needed. However, one thing is for certain … Dr. Oslisly and his team need to keep their location a secret from unscrupulous bushmeat hunters.