Geographical Range Indonesia and Malaysia
Habitat Freshwater lakes, rivers, and swamps
Scientific Name Tomistoma schlegelii
Conservation Status Endangered

True or False?

If there's an animal called a false gharial, then there must also be a true gharial, right? Yes! Compared to most other crocodilians (crocodiles and alligators), both true and false gharials have long,slender snouts. So how do you tell if a gharial is true or false? Forone thing, they don't look exactly alike -- the false gharial doesn't grow as big as a true gharial, and its snout is somewhat shorter. For another thing, they don't live in the same areas -- false gharials live in Indonesia and Malaysia, while true gharials are found in northern India and surrounding countries. So now you know how to tell if a gharial is true or false!

Built to Swim

Like all crocodilians, false gharials spend a lot of time in the water, and are well suited to a liquid lifestyle. Their streamlined body cuts through the water, and their muscular tail helps them swim.Their eyes and nose sit on top of the head, so the animals can see and hear what's going on even when they're mostly submerged. Special structures in their mouth and throat let them breathe with their mouth closed while keeping water from entering the throat.

False gharials are fairly large crocodilians, growing 13 feet long or more. Like all crocodilians, their body is covered with scaly, protective armor. In false gharials, the scales are colored dark brown, with some black bands on the tail and body.

Fish 'n More

False gharials' long, slender snout isn't just for looks. It's specially designed for catching fish: the more slender the snout, the less resistance as the animal sweeps its head sideways and snaps fish out of the water.

Fish might be their favorite food, but false gharials like to broaden their menu from time to time. They snack on crustaceans like crabs -- not surprising, since the false gharial's long snout helps them probe in the critters' underground burrows.

False gharials also eat various mammals, some as large as macaque monkeys. These unsuspecting victims come to the water's edge and don't notice the false gharials floating there, nearly submerged and almost invisible.

Once false gharials grab a victim, their mouth closes with tremendous force, puncturing and holding the prey with their teeth. Like all crocodilians, they usually swallow their prey whole or in large chunks. There's nothing dainty about these reptiles!

Mound Builders

Little is known about the breeding habits of false gharials. We do know that females build mounds of vegetation (usually dry leaves or peat) for laying their eggs. The mound nests are up to two feet tall. Here the female lays between 20 and 60 large eggs, each measuring about four inches long. Some three months later, the eggs hatch and the newborns emerge.

Life is dangerous for the tiny hatchlings, and many fall prey to predators like wild pigs and reptiles. As they grow older, and bigger, they're better able to defend themselves.

Heating Up, Cooling Off

Scientists don't know much about the habits of false gharials. But they do know that false gharials spend a lot of time controlling their body temperature. This is because they, like all reptiles, are ectotherms (once called "cold-blooded"). When false gharials need to heat up, they come on land to bask in the sun. When they need to cool off, they get back in the water.

Since crocodilians are larger than other reptiles, it takes them longer to heat up or cool off. Temperature shifts may be measured in hours or days, not minutes (as for small reptiles).

True Problems for the False Gharial

False gharials are in danger of extinction. Already they've become extinct in areas where they were once found (like Thailand).

What's happening to these animals? For one thing, they're losing ground as more and more of their habitat is turned into farmland, or destroyed to build dams and other structures. These reptiles also suffer from fishing -- either directly, by getting trapped in the nets and drowning, or indirectly, by losing an important food source. Finally, some false gharials are killed for their skins.

What's being done to help these magnificent reptiles? They are currently protected by laws in Malaysia and Indonesia, and by an international agreement that virtually prohibits trade in the species. Unfortunately, these laws are not always well enforced.

There is still a need for a plan to protect these animals in the wild. A first step, now underway, is to conduct a survey to learn the number and distribution of false gharials remaining in the wild. This information will lead to a plan for saving these animals. In the end, the conservation of false gharials will depend on solutions that allow these reptiles and people to live together.

What can you do to help false gharials? Don't buy products made from their skins, and encourage your family and friends to do the same.

Fun Facts

  • Tomistoma, the scientific name for the false gharial, means "sharp mouth" in Greek.
  • Both false and true gharials are also sometimes called gavials. It's believed that this term began as a misspelling of gharial.

Class: Reptilia
Order: Crocodylia
Family: Crocodylidae