Aspects of Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) population ecology and behaviour in Pongolapoort Dam, KwaZulu-Natal.
Pongolapoort Dam is one of the largest dams in South Africa by volume. It is also home to a breeding population of Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus). Crocodiles are keystone species which play an important ecological role in their aquatic habitats but are under threat globally. Consequently the aims of this project were to investigate the population number, nesting ecology, and behavioural aspects of gaping in Nile crocodiles at Pongolapoort Dam. Data were captured from July 2014 to August 2015, where there was a marked decrease in water levels in Pongolapoort Dam due to a drought occurring throughout KwaZulu-Natal. An estimated 549 Nile crocodiles occurred in Pongolapoort Dam in 2015, an increase in population from a conservative estimate of 273 individuals in 2010. The majority (80%) of the Nile crocodile population occurred in the inlet section of the dam, and with dropping water levels, the crocodiles congregated in large numbers in the Croc Bay region of the inlet. The population structure changed from 2010 when the majority occurred in the juvenile class to the majority of the crocodiles occurring in the sub-adult and adult size class in 2014/2015. The reproductive output of a population can be an indicator of population health. Consequently nesting ecology of Nile crocodiles was investigated at Pongolapoort Dam for the 2014/2015 nesting season. A total of 38 Nile crocodile nests were found over four nesting sites in the river section of Pongolapoort Dam. Nest effort decreased from 73% in 2009/2010 to 43% in 2014/2015, with a density of 4.9 nests per kilometre in the river section. All nests were found in alluvial deposits where Phragmites australis was the dominant vegetation. Some nests were predated by water monitors (Varanus niloticus); however, two nurseries were found containing hatchlings, while many nests showed signs of being dug up by the nesting females. The N2 Bend and Buffalo Bend floodplain were the most important nesting grounds, and this was attributed to the presence of suitable nesting conditions. Gaping behaviour in Nile crocodiles has received little attention as there are conflicting ideas as to why gaping occurs. The majority of literature suggests that gaping is a thermoregulatory response aimed at cooling the head of the crocodile. We aimed to identify other possible behaviours associated with gaping, at a basking bank in Pongolapoort Dam during winter. Preliminary results suggest that gaping may be a communicative or behavioural posture brought on by the following factors; position of the crocodile relative to the water, total length of the crocodile, time of gape, degree of gape, nearest neighbouring crocodile and number of neighbouring crocodiles. Further research is needed to help understand this behaviour of Nile crocodiles and its importance in their ecology and behaviour. The study showed that the population of Nile crocodiles in Pongolapoort Dam is increasing and remains in a healthy state compared with other population in South Africa. Insights into their behaviour may be applicable to other crocodilian taxa.