Saturday, January 12, 2013

Scarred for life (or what's left of it)

‘Well, it’s going to leave a scar’, the doctor said as we stared at the gaping wound on my lower leg.
He wanted to stitch it.
I was trying to avoid having needles poked through my flesh.
‘I can cope with that’, I said calmly (secretly thinking: Ah ha. Now I can impress people who ask about my scars).

But that was five years ago and NO ONE HAS EVER ASKED.

Now this sad state of affairs is a product of my age.
Have you noticed that when you’re young, people are forever asking you how you acquired this blemish or that. And as a callow youth, all you can do is confess, ‘Okay, I’m a complete klutz’. Yes, I did mishandle a breadknife; yes, I did trip on the stairs.
But as you edge into middle-age, scars shift allegiance, traitorously teaming up with wrinkles, saggy skin and liver spots to become harbingers of age. And, goodness me, no one wants to mention them!

Of course, the phenomenon isn’t limited to bodily blemishes and I’m the first to rejoice in this unexpected benefit of aging. No longer must I endure prolonged and incredulous discussions about why I don’t want children (Oh God, she’s one of those unfortunate women who can’t have kids...) or hours of nonsensical harassment over imbibing distasteful beverages (don’t say anything; she’s obviously on the wagon...).
But I’m digressing shamelessly here (probably senility).
Since no one has ever enquired about the impressive scar on my right calf, I’m going to tell you about it here. And it serves you right for being so polite!

It was a dark and stormy night...
Well it was dark at least. Oh, and it was hot (I was wearing shorts).
Suddenly my dogs shot out the backdoor, barking wildly. Something stirred in the bushes beyond the garden and Magic (my husky cross) clambered straight up and over my dog-proof fence.
Aha, I thought, this isn’t one of our normal passersby.
You see, like all well-brought-up carnivores, my dogs detest other meat-eating beasts. When a porcupine, hippo or waterbuck tippy-toes past the garden they respond with a bark or two, but only a carnivorous creature can arouse them to such athleticism.

Envisaging the potential annihilation of some innocent little furbearer, I girded my loins for a rescue mission (scuffed my feet into thongs/flipflops and grabbed up my semi-flat torch/flashlight).
As I hurried through the thigh-high forbes below the garden, I could see Magic circling a large tree stump, barking frantically. Oh dear, some inoffensive critter must be hiding among the broken roots. A fur-fluffed genet maybe? Or a striped polecat, big-eyed and cowering? Shining my wavering torch beam carefully on the stump, I hastened toward Magic.
Then CRUNCH!
Something had sunk its teeth into my lower leg.
And let me tell you, this was no little mustelid.
With my mind still fixed on nocturnal mammals, I bewilderedly ran through the possibilities. A civet? A honey badger?
But even the most vicious honey badger couldn’t feel like this! Warm wetness was flowing down my leg and pooling stickily in my sandal. As I lowered the torch beam toward my leg, my mysterious attacker gave a head-shake, thrashing the vegetation wildly and almost flinging me off my feet. Then it let go. And I finally managed to get the light focused at my feet.
Oh God!
Right before me was the wide, tooth-filled gape of a crocodile.


What you don’t want to see two inches in front of you.

Now this was a shock. This is NOT what you expect to find at the bottom of your garden! Well sure, I live beside the Oliphants River, but the water’s edge is at least 250m/yards from my house.
The reptile, poised threateningly in a patch of flattened vegetation, was relatively small (for a crocodile) being about the same size as me (1.7 m / 5’6” long). And it was fixing me with a piercing death stare. Without thinking, I immediately stepped backward and the creature lunged toward me, it's mouth still agape. However, this time it kept its teeth to itself and I was able to slowly back away. As I hobbled squelchily back to the house, I found I was shaking head to foot.


Fortunately the teeth of the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus nilotus) are designed to grab and hold, rather than slice and dice. On the downside, crocodiles have the most powerful bite known for any living creature.
Photo by Silvain de Munck.

Now I don’t blame the crocodile for this assault. Clearly I’d blundered straight into it, and who doesn’t bite when stepped upon? I’m just profoundly grateful that it let go! A few years ago I read an article in the local paper about a crocodile that got into a swimming pool at a local game lodge. It grabbed a child (by a limb) and hung on. The girl’s grandfather managed to keep her above water, but it was half an hour before he could persuade the beast to open its maw. Unfortunately, the crocodile had to be put down afterwards because Granddad had had to gouge its eyes right out of their sockets before the crocodile would let go.

Now if you’ve ever lain awake at night worrying about how hard a crocodile can bite (and who hasn’t), a recent study by Gregory Erickson and his colleges in Florida will put your mind at rest. These intrepid researchers persuaded 83 crocodilians to sink their fangs into a waterproof, leather-encased bathroom scale (ain’t science grand). They measured the bite force of all 23 living species, from diminutive little fish-eaters to bloody great wildebeest-snatchers. And what they found was unexpected.


The toothy schnoz of the Indian gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) is a perfect fish-processing tool.
Photo by Josh More.

The Chinese alligator’s (Alligator sinensis) Walt-Disneyesque snub nose is custom-made for crushing mollusc shells.
Photo by Roger Smith.

It didn’t matter what a crocodile ate, or how its snout or teeth were shaped, the force of its bite was the same. What was important was the size of the beast; the bigger the croc (regardless of its species) the worse the chomp (note to self: don’t step on a large crocodile). The most powerful bite the researchers measured was inflicted by a whopping (5.3 m/17 ft long) saltwater crocodile whose teeth crunched down with a force of 3,700 pounds per sq inch (psi) or 16,400 newtons. Compare this to a human’s best bite (150-200 psi or 4,450 newtons) or that of a lion or spotted hyena (1,000 psi or 4,450 newtons) and you can see why crocodiles really are best avoided.

Using the measurements from this study, and scaling down to a 1.7 m crocodile, I figure that my scar was produced by teeth pressing into my flesh at a force of about 335 psi (or 1,500 newtons). This isn’t too bad really (it’s certainly better than a lion). I guess you can stop feeling sympathetic (you were feeling sympathy, weren’t you?).


The little raised black spots on the scales of crocodilians are touch-receptors, ten-times more sensitive than our finger tips. You can read about them here. Nile crocodiles, such as this one, have them sprinkled all over, but in alligators they’re restricted to the snout. Photo by Silvain de Munck.

Now you may be wondering what‘s brought on my current bout of crocobilia. Well I’m currently staying (temporarily I’m afraid) in a beautiful lodge perched on an outcrop above the river. And it has a swimming pool (oh, the luxury). Unfortunately my dogs - who presumably read the local rag - believe the pool is crocodile-infested and won’t set paw anywhere near it. Whenever I take a dip they look at me with tragic reproof, utterly convinced that this folly will cost me my life. And Magic’s paranoia doesn’t stop there; she’s sure we’re facing an invasion. With great heroism, she sits guard, day and night, on the verandah overlooking the pool and barks ferociously each time the floating bottle of pool chemicals drifts in the direction of the house. Sigh.

Magic on sentry duty.


11 comments:

  1. Good heavens! I wish I hadn't been so polite and had asked you sooner about *point* that. It's a helluva story to tell at polite cocktail parties (which you, no doubt, frequent).

    (I wonder what a honey badger bite would be like. Somewhere up with the hyena and lion?)

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  2. Oops not a nice creature to have in your garden though we used to get them when we lived on the banks of the Hunyani in Zimbabwe. Thankfully I never met up with one in the dark. You are so lucky you only have a scar to show for it! I am sure if I had met up with you I would have asked what the scar was :) Take care Diane

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  3. However long you get to stay in such a nice lodge with the pool and scenic overlook, I hope you savor the luxury. Here in Alaska in the dead of winter, you have me mightily jealous. I think I might even trade a crocadile bite for the privelidge.

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  4. Great story...can we see the scar?!

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  5. Oh, this reminded me of my own close call with a Nile crocodile - fortunately I escaped those teeth! I'm surprised the leopards have left your dogs alone, we couldn't keep any dogs on Lake Tanganyika. Love your blog :-)

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  6. What a story. I am glad I do not live where they live. I love animals, but these guys don't make my warm and fuzzy list. You have brave dogs too.

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  7. Another entertaining post - thanks. Just glad its crocobilia rather than crocophobia.

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  8. Snail,
    Oh yes, cocktail parties are very big here. The vervets are utterly committed to the whole 'shaken not stirred' issue, but I feel the baboons might do better giving those little black numbers a miss.
    Judging by the dreadful state of my heavy duty garbage bin (after five minutes at the teeth of a single individual), I reckon honey badgers could easily give crocs a run for their money.

    Diane,
    Thank you for your refreshing lack of politeness! Yes, I guess I should be thankful the critter perceived me as a threat and not as supper.

    John,
    I don't know how you cope with Alaska in the depths of winter. I know it's beautiful but the lack of daylight would make me suicidal within days. (Are slashed wrists worse than crocodile bites??)

    Alyssa,
    No, sorry. I can't bring myself to post a close-up piccy of my hairy, wrinkly, knobbly-kneed appendage. It would scare younger readers.


    Karen,
    Other people around here have lost dogs to leopards, but maybe huskies just don't smell yummy enough. The leopards here flee from dogs (even little ones!) by day, and I keep my hounds inside at night to foil feline prowlers.

    Gardenwalkgardentalk,
    I must admit I'm not profoundly fond of crocodiles either (exacerbated by their consumption of two of my dogs in the past). Still, like most things, they grow on you with time.

    Jeremy,
    I'm quite busy enough here coping with my snake-phobia without adding crocophobia.
    I like your idea of 17 secretive beasts, but I'd add cane rats (very impressive critters), striped polecats (embarrassingly cute) and of course MORE MONGOOSES.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading and responding to my blog Lynda. Cane rats?....mmmm... thats not one that I saw coming! Polecats nearly made my list but I went for the Weasel instead. I have no compelling reason for this other than I seem to see Polecats more often - sadly often as roadkill. I have to admit to a fondness for Mongooses too but decided I could just choose one. I went for the White-tailed due to its impressive size and because I've never got a photo of one on my camera-traps.

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  9. No posts since January? Your readers would politely request a few more posts about Mongoose misadventures!

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  10. Daniel,
    My problem is that I don't really have any way to access the internet at the moment. Still I see what I can do...

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