Crocodiles are essentially the modern-day version of dinosaurs here on earth. These massive reptiles are found worldwide and remind humans of what life looked like tens of millions of years ago. On an evolutionary level, crocodiles are old enough to be considered living fossils. Crocodiles, and their higher subcategory, order Crocodilia, have been on earth for millions of years. In addition to their survivability, they are known to have extremely long lives, rivaling that of even humans. With that in mind, how old can a crocodile get? Let’s look at their average life spans, as well as the world’s oldest crocodile on record.
Background on crocodiles
Crocodiles are often confused with other members of their order, although they can be broken up into three distinct families. The overarching order is known as “order Crocodilia,” but within the order are the three families, family Crocodylidae (sometimes known as “true” crocodiles”), family Alligatoridae (containing alligators and caimans), and family Gavialidae (containing gharial and false gharials).
Crocodiles first appeared 95 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous period. To give some context, the famous Tyrannosaurus Rex, Velociraptors, and Triceratops were all alive when the first crocodiles were on the scene. Additionally, crocodiles and birds are the only living descendants from the Archosaur clade. Archosaur translates as “ruling reptile,” whose original representatives were the dinosaurs. It’s accurate to say that birds and crocodiles are the only living ancestors of the dinosaurs. Strangely enough, birds and dinosaurs are each other’s closest living relatives.
How did crocodiles outlive the dinosaurs?
When many people realize that crocodiles outlive the dinosaurs, questions of their resilience come up. Scientific research has some answers that explain why crocodiles survived their dino cousins.
Combining a few widely accepted theories seems to make the most sense. The first is that they were better adapted, especially after a meteor struck near the Gulf of Mexico. Cold-blooded reptiles, crocodiles can go for long periods of time with little food and almost no movement. Contrasting that with other dinosaurs (who are now believed to have been majority warm-blooded), the crocodiles at the time needed less food, didn’t have to move (conserving energy), and could enter periods of hibernation when it was cold and dark.
Additionally, the amphibious and widespread nature of a crocodile’s habitat allowed it to survive when many other habitats went through a drastic change. Many large land-dwelling dinosaurs didn’t have enough food to live, and the massive sea-dwelling dinosaurs were impacted by acidifying ocean conditions. When things got bad on land, crocodiles simply went into the water; when things got bad in the sea, they could find new freshwater habitats.
These factors combined form a convincing narrative as to why crocodiles outlived the other dinosaurs. They were perfectly adapted for the conditions that came after the meteor hit.
Crocodile lifespan: What is the average age of a crocodile?
When it comes to crocodiles, the most significant determining factor is the species. Among the crocodile family specifically, the average age is estimated to be around 30-40 years, although that’s just the average. Typically, the larger the species of crocodile, the more likely it is to have a longer lifespan. As a result, the saltwater crocodile is generally the longest-lived and the largest. On average, saltwater crocs have a lifespan of 60-70 years old in the wild.
Like many animals, those in captivity have longer lifespans than those in the wild. This is typically due to a lack of resource scarcity and predation, resulting in animals that reach their biological limit instead of their environmental limit.
How old is the oldest crocodile on record?
The oldest crocodile on record was Mr. Freshie, a saltwater crocodile that lived to 140 years old.
Now, before we talk more about Mr. Freshie, it’s important to note that it is notoriously hard to guess how old a crocodile is accurately. Measuring growth rings on bones and teeth is how crocodile ages are estimated, but it’s not an exact science, especially with fluctuating wet and dry seasons causing irregular growth. In addition his age is an estimate rather than being a crocodile whose birth was recorded at a zoo.
But as we noted, the oldest crocodile on record is known as Mr. Freshie. Mr. Freshie is a freshwater crocodile that lived in the Australian Zoo from 1970 until 2010. Originally captured in 1970 by Bob and Steve Irwin (the Crocodile Hunter), the two then transported him to the Australian Zoo for medical attention. He had been shot twice in the tail and once in the eye by hunters, leaving him to die unless he got medical attention.
Despite sustaining severe wounds, he soon recovered and lived at the zoo until he passed away peacefully in 2010. Although he only spent forty years in captivity, it is estimated that Mr. Freshie was already 100 years old when he was captured, making him 140 years old at the time of his death. For context, Mr. Freshie was born in 1870, only five years after the American Civil War and seven years before Thomas Edison showed the first phonograph to the offices at Scientific American.
The world’s oldest still living crocodile is a Nile crocodile named Henry, and who turned 121 in December, 2021. Henry lives in a nature preserve in South Africa. Like Mr. Freshie, Henry’s age is estimated. He was first captured in 1985, meaning he’s lived in captivity for 36 years.
How do crocodiles compare to alligators and gharial?
There are only two known species of alligator, the American alligator and the Chinese alligator. American alligators typically live between 30-50 years, with the oldest alligator on record being held by an alligator at the Belgrade Zoo in Serbia named Muja. Since the Chinese alligator is so uncommon, there isn’t much information on their longevity. It’s likely similar to that of the American alligator. An interesting note on distribution, Crocodiles can’t survive in water temperatures below 45F degrees before succumbing to the cold. However, the American alligator can survive even in frozen lakes and ponds by “brumating,” or sticking their snouts out, letting it freeze, and going into a state of hibernation. As a result, American alligators are more common in the United States, although they are less long-lived.
Gharials, some of the rarest reptiles in the world, don’t have much information available on them. The only recorded age is from a female at the London Zoo who lived to 29 years old. Fisherman in their native habitat of India and Nepal claim they live “to the age of man,” likely around 100 years old.
Among their reptile order, Crocodiles reign supreme when it comes to age and size.
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