ORLANDO, Fla. – Valentine’s Day has gone and past, but love is still in the air right now for some saltwater crocodiles, or “salties” as they’re called, at Gatorland.
Ahead of breeding season, the theme park is trying something they say is already showing signs of success and has not been tried in any other animal park around the world.
Leaders are using a technique called introduction through shifting.
One of the park’s large saltwater crocodiles, Dundee, is being allowed to shift, or move, from one enclosure to the other to see, smell and hopefully reproduce with two female crocodiles in separate enclosures, Salty Girl and Phoebe.
“The problem with saltwater crocodiles is the females don’t get along, so they each kind of have their own apartment, one is right by the other,” President & CEO of Gatorland Mark McHugh said. “We have one male named Dundee; he is a big crazy saltwater crocodile. He’s the lucky guy because it’s like crocodile Match.com - he gets to go back and forth between the two females. They don’t do that readily - we had to train him.”
In order for this to happen, highly skilled and trained professionals lure the nearly 1,000-pound male crocodile from one enclosure to the other with food and positive reinforcement.
Leaders said these movements and interactions between the crocodiles are happening on select days and depending on several factors including the weather.
“We have a shift gate that we bring him in, and bring him to this pool,” Gatorland Park Director Mike Hileman said. “He gets to spend a couple hours, several times a week in here getting to know her, seeing her, smelling her. At the end of the day, we shift him back into his normal habitat.”
Unlike humans on blind dates, these types of love-making scenarios between crocodiles bring about a level of risk.
During the first introduction, several Gatorland professionals had to observe the situation to make sure that Dundee was being accepted by the park’s female crocodile Salty Girl. If the courtship was not working, leaders said Dundee could show serious signs of aggression towards the smaller female crocodile, or worse, kill her if he wanted to.
“There is going to be some moments that get a little tense for us to sit there and watch and not intervene, but that’s crocodile life,” Hileman explained. “That’s the stuff they have to work out. As long as it doesn’t create a pattern and keep going and escalate.”
Saltwater crocodiles communicate using several sounds, including barking, hissing, growling and chirps. During the first interaction, leaders recorded the moment Dundee chased Salty Girl around the enclosure’s watery area. The big question, was this aggression or just a sign of flirtation?
Thankfully, the technique and meetups are already showing positive signs of matchmaking success.
After each interaction, Dundee will spend most of the day in that enclosure before moving back to his original enclosure with the other female.
Gatorland said this type of movement is allowing the giant male crocodile to do what he would be doing in the wild, while also reducing the amount of stress on the giant reptile. Without the use of shifting, leaders would have to safely hold the animal down, temporarily tape its mouth shut and move it each time - which takes time and escalates the level of stress on the animal.
Each breeding season, female saltwater crocodiles could lay a clutch of approximately 50 eggs. By performing this technique at Gatorland, and if proven to be successful, the park could welcome its first batch of hatchlings this year.
“Saltwater crocodiles are a little tough to come by here in the United States, so being able to get two clutches of successful breeding and eggs would be a big feather in our hat, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Hileman said.
Gatorland recently received a couple saltwater crocodile hatchlings. They’re currently being monitored by staff in a backstage area for the time being.
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