World Tomistoma Day

In honor of World Tomistoma Day, here's an interview with one of our Herpetology Keepers, Colin, on his daily work with our Malaysian false Gharial crocodiles (Tomistoma schlegelii).

What does your day-to-day consist of?

Typically, my day begins with a sweep through the collection to check in on the animals, ensure they are in their appropriate enclosures, have water, and don’t have any health issues or injuries requiring immediate veterinary evaluation.

After, I’ll begin preparing diets; chopping salads for the herbivores, portioning out rodents, poultry, and fish for the carnivores, and scooping out a big cup of crickets or cockroaches sprinkled with calcium and vitamins for the insectivores. I’ll then go from exhibit to exhibit, cleaning and feeding as I go. Animals that thrive in humid environments get misted daily (sometimes multiple times per day), and everybody gets fresh, clean water.

Following the morning routine, I might head to the office to take care of work on the computer. Record keeping, correspondence with coworkers and colleagues at other zoos and aquariums, and ordering feed, supplies, and equipment usually makes up the bulk of this time.

Our afternoons generally consist of feeding and training our larger animals – the Komodo dragons and the Tomistoma. These sessions are where we not only teach the animals new behaviors, they are also the best opportunity during the day to evaluate their health, physical fitness, and psychological well-being. Each feed includes a pre- and post-session discussion between members of the Herpetology team to make sure everyone is on the same page and to evaluate the animals’ progress.

The day concludes with another round of record data entry and correspondence and a check-out inspection of all the animals to make sure everybody is settled in for the night. A not well-advertised, but crucial (and time-intensive) component of all of the tasks above, is the sweeping, mopping, dish-washing, disinfecting, and glass cleaning of our service and exhibit areas. We also spend a good amount of time out on the exhibit gallery floor to interact with guests and answer questions throughout the day.

What sort of knowledge or training is required to properly care for Tomistoma?

All crocodilians have the same basic biological needs: a proper light/dark period, adequate temperatures in the air and water, appropriate variety of food, and a home spacious enough to exercise and practice natural behaviors. Learning what those specific parameters are, and how to ensure we meet them, is the most important knowledge we develop. Additionally, because Tomistoma can be incredibly psychologically sensitive compared to other crocodilian species, extensive experience in animal behavior and stress recognition and mitigation are critical to maintaining their health.

Under what conditions can tomistomas thrive? How does the aquarium maintain these conditions in their exhibit?

Tomistoma prefer water and air temperatures in the low 80’s, with a basking spot of about 100 degrees. We maintain this environment through in-line water heaters, specialized basking lights and radiant infrared heaters, and the building HVAC. Optimal water quality is maintained through a very large filtration system that sits above the exhibit, supervised by our Life Support

Team, and is checked weekly by our in-house Water Quality Lab technicians. Behaviorally, Tomistoma can be shy, and while they generally get along together, sometimes need their privacy. We help them with this structurally, by building natural blind spots and visual barriers into the exhibit, and by providing access to an adjoining “holding area” with both water and land area where they can get some periodic seclusion.

What kind of preventative care do these crocs receive?

Crocodilians are very physically tough animals, and have some of the strongest immune systems in the animal kingdom, so their preventative care needs are pretty minimal. Our veterinary staff might evaluate fecal or blood samples to keep an eye out for potential health risks, and we conduct annual physical exams and health discussions to identify any issues, but in general their health management is reactive in nature. Many illnesses in crocs are preventable through proper environment, diet, and reducing the risk of accidental transmission of pathogens, which we do through footbaths, consistent cleaning of feeding equipment, and overall cleanliness of access points to the exhibit.

What are Ralf and Sommer’s favorite food?

They both really like rats and chicks.

How would you describe Ralf and Sommer’s personalities? How do their personalities affect how they are cared for?

Sommer is very bold, very confident, and very food motivated. While this potentially makes her more dangerous to work around, it’s also made her much easier to train which in turn, creates opportunities to work with her safely. For instance, she learned to follow a target pole into their holding pool really quickly, so any time we need to move her off exhibit to clean thoroughly, it’s very easy to do so.

Ralf on the other hand, is very shy, picky about who he’ll work with in training sessions, and if circumstances aren’t perfect, he has no problem diving to the bottom of the pool, sitting in a dark corner, and waiting for us to leave before he comes out again, often hours later. He is slower to learn new behaviors because he is still a little hesitant to “come out of his shell”. In fact, he was here at the Aquarium for nearly 6 months before he would eat from tongs!

What is the most difficult part about your job?

Maintaining balance among the many different responsibilities of the job. As zookeepers, we wear a lot of hats: cook, cleaner, trainer, plumber, electrician, carpenter, vet assistant, chemist, engineer, sculptor, painter, author, educator, data entry technician, groomer, nutritionist, accountant, and on rare occasion… rodeo clown.

Squeezing all of those duties into a 40 hour week takes an incredible amount of coordination, communication, and flexibility, particularly when trying to synchronize schedules for tasks requiring multiple teammates, even multiple departments, all of whom have their own priorities during their day.

Do they bite? Are they friendly to humans/to each other?

As we say, anything with a mouth can bite, that’s what mouths are for. Among crocodilians, however, Tomistoma fall into the lower end of the aggression spectrum. Attacks on humans are rare (30 documented attacks in the last 10 years, only 12 fatal, compared to 1100+ attacks by saltwater crocodiles in the same span), but as with many wild animals, creating an association between humans and food increases the risk of a bite substantially. For Tomistoma, who have a very healthy natural fear and aversion to humans, the difference can be night and day (Ralf and Sommer present an ideal example of this as I mentioned above).

Tomistoma tend to get along pretty well with each other, as long as they have adequate space and food. Social disputes are largely settled through body language and intimidation, but fights occasionally erupt.

For Ralf and Sommer, there is an interesting social situation occurring right now. When they arrived, Sommer was the larger croc by a wide margin and was the established dominant animal in the pool. Now that Ralf is catching up to her in size, and will eventually surpass her, they are restructuring their social hierarchy. He is getting more assertive, and she is reluctant to back down, so there are occasional conflicts, particularly right after feeding time. These conflicts almost always end with Sommer chasing Ralf up the ramp and out of the water. She may bite him lightly to expedite his exit, but never causes any serious injury. Once he’s out, she’ll keep an eye on him for a little while, but the conflict is usually over after that. That is the importance of providing an ideal habitat with lots of hiding spaces and blind corners, nearly any physical dispute can be mitigated and even terminated simply by giving the submissive animal a way out.