Investigating Africa's Mysterious Cave Crocodiles

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Nile crocs can grow to 16 feet (5 meters) or more, and local tales tell of 20-foot (6-meter) crocs in the caves. Barr did not encounter any of the true giants, but he did find evidence that they exist within the 60 miles (97 kilometers) of underground rivers and passageways.

"I never saw any big crocs but there were giant footprints," he said. "There are lots of crocs using these caves and it was frustrating to know that there were a lot of them around that we couldn't see. In a lake, river or swamp they dive underwater, but here they dive underwater, and then go through a secret passage to another room on the other side of a wall. It was a 3-D environment, the ultimate maze, like an ant farm for crocs."

The difficulties and dangers, which included flooding, quicksand, and disorienting directions did not stop the team from achieving their goal—capturing the first ever cave croc and taking a tissue sample for genetic study.

"We did something that had never been done before," Barr explained to National Geographic News. "Yeah, I would have loved a 16-foot [5-meter] croc but the real achievement was that we allowed a genetic analysis to take place of the tissue samples of those crocs." While it's too early to tell, the preliminary results of those tests look intriguing.

"I'm not a geneticist," Barr said, "but we are hearing that the cave population was distinctly different genetically from other populations of Nile crocodiles in Madagascar. There's ongoing research on the tissue and DNA tests, and these results are just very preliminary, but since they appear to be different that's an extra added incentive to protect the caves where they dwell."

Barr added that he's eager to return and study the cave crocs, and that others are joining the effort as well. "What I saw has been passed on to the scientific community and I know that others are eager to do research in the caves. Hopefully someone can unravel the mystery of this bizarre subterranean population of crocs."

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