Dragon Songs: Love and Adventure Among Crocodiles, Alligators, and Other Dinosaur Relations, by zoologist, writer, and explorer Dinets, offers a riveting, global view of crocodilians in the wild.
Why study crocodilians?
They are their ecosystems’ top predators, yet they start life so small; they are important to ecosystem health when both old and young, as predator and prey.
How close are they to being living dinosaurs?
They outlived dinosaurs, which are related to crocodilians and ancestral to birds. Via phylogenetic bracketing, we make inferences. Some dinosaurs may have communicated via infrasound [frequencies below 20hz, lower than most human hearing], like crocodilians and a few primitive birds. Tyrannosaurus rex almost certainly had feathers, like birds and many fossil dinosaurs.
What was the most surprising thing you learned during your research?
How much we don’t know about crocodilians: alligators, crocodiles, caimans, and gharials. There is more research on American alligators than any reptile, 1,500 papers. Yet the first week I discovered something unknown: they dance at night, up to 100 at once; a mating ritual.
Why was this unknown?
Zoology is getting so underfunded with the rise of molecular biology, some zoologists are improperly trained; some do research in zoos. Alligators don’t dance in zoos.
What is the adaptation theory you’d most like to see proven?
One thing everybody thinks should exist is the ability of female crocodilians to regulate nest temperature. Crocodilians have temperature-dependent sex determination, so females may purposefully change hatchling sex by adding or removing rotting vegetation to nests. But while we’ve seen them shading or watering nests, we’re still unsure. It’s a great topic, given climate change’s possible effect on sex.
What were the most beautiful or exciting things you saw in your field work?
All ecosystems: forests, coral reefs, open oceans, deserts. All are beautiful and complex on many levels. Even in the most remote, poor parts of the world, peoples’ attitudes toward nature are changing. Last month, U.S. smugglers who tried to steal critically endangered pygmy sloths from a Panama island, for a private U.S. aquarium, were apprehended by smalltown residents. A few years ago, nobody there would have cared if they shot every last sloth.
You are able to do fieldwork on a shoestring due to your explorer’s skills. You eat cheaply. You hitchhike. You know your edible flora. Less resourceful zoologists lean solely on ever-sparser grants. Why is robust zoology funding key?
It is vital we understand our planet’s greatest asset is not oil or gold, but the biodiversity that keeps its life-support system flexible and robust. Loss of ecosystem is a graver threat than terrorists, dictators, disease. Zoology’s future depends on the U.S. political climate.