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Gharial (Gavial, Indian Gharial, Indian Gavial)

Image (c) Adam Britton,

An unusual crocodilian

Order: Crocodylia

Family: Crocodylidae

Subfamily: Gavialinae

Genus & Species: Gavialis gangeticus


The gharial is an unusual crocodilian with a very long snout. Gharials are one of the longest of the crocodilians, rivaling the Australian saltwater crocodile in length. They have an average length of 12.25-15.5 ft (3.6-4.5 m). Males are larger than females, and may reach maximum lengths of 21 ft (6 m). The females reach lengths of 13 ft (3.9 m). Gharials weigh 2200 lbs (977 kg).

Gharials have very slender, elongated snouts, similar in appearance to that of the false gharial. In mature males, the snout is tipped with a large, bulbous mass known as the ghara, after the Indian word for "pot", which it resembles. The gharial's scientific name is actually a misspelling of this word. The ghara's exact function is not known, but it is thought to produce a loud buzzing noise when it vocalizes. It is also thought to attract females and produce bubbles during courtship. Gharials lack lips, so their mouth is usually full of water. However, they can still breathe through their nostrils, which in the males are set into the ghara. The eyes are set high up on the head. The jaws are equipped with sharp pointed teeth that point forward and slightly outwards. The teeth are interlocking and are uniform in size. There are 54 on the upper jaw and 48 on the lower jaw.

Gharials have a very tough hide sought after by hunters. Gharials are a pale olive to tan in colour, with dark blotches on the body and tail. The legs are longer proportionately than most other crocodilians. The feet are webbed and the tail is well-developed, two aspects that aid with swimming. They are clumsy on land, as their leg musculature doesn't allow them to raise their body or tail off the ground. They can, however, belly-slide rather quickly if need be.


The gharial is found in many countries, but is close to extirpation in most. In India and Nepal it is reasonably safe, but in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Pakistan it is in grave danger. Small populations can be found in Burma. They are found in six major river systems, the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Mahanadi, Kaladan, and Irrawaddy.

Gharials prefer clear, fast rivers, and stray from the water only to sunbathe on the sandy banks. During the winter they hibernate at the winter bottom where the water is warmest, rising occasionally to breathe.


Juveniles feed mainly on invertebrates such as insects and small crustaceans, and some vertebrates such as frogs. Adults have a very limited diet due to the thinness of the snout, and feed almost exclusively on small fish such as catfish. The snout is ideal for this diet, as it presents little resistence to water. A lightning fast flick of the head to the side and then snapping down of the jaws on an unsuspecting fish will give the gharial food for a week. Larger gharials may capture birds, crabs, small mammals, and snakes. They also feed on carrion, and have been found to have human remains in their stomach from corpses floating down the Ganges after the Hindu burial service.

Gharials swallow small stones to help digest food. They also swallow beads, ankle bracelets, etc for the same purpose.


The gharial is a rare species due in part to poaching and habitat encroachment. Protection, established in the 1970's, was slow to become a reality, and today they are protected in 9 sites in India. In 1975 there were fewer than 70 gharials left. Due to conservation and being revered by the Hindu, there are now 1500 in the wild in India. Unfortunately, there are only 20 sexually mature males. In Nepal, there are approximately 70 gharials in the wild, and in Pakistan there may only be 2 to 3.

Monitor lizards and jackals eat the eggs. Of a total of 40 juveniles born in the wild only 1 may make it to maturity. Eggs are collected for medicine, and the snout is used as an aphrodisiac. The gharial is an endangered species.


Sexual maturity is reached at 10 years of age. The breeding season is from November-January. The female digs the nest 30 ft (9 m) from the river and lays around 40 eggs 2 1/3 by 2 1/4 in (9 by 7 cm) in size. The incubation period is typically 2-3 months depending on the warmth of the weather (warmer = sooner). When the eggs hatch, the mother hears their calls and digs out the nest, and then carries them to the river. The juveniles are 14 in (35 cm) long at birth, and have very long snouts. They are greyish-brown in colour, with 5 dark bands on the body and 9 on the tail.


The gharial is the only crocodilian in its subfamily. The false gharial is in the subfamily Crocodylinae, and the two are not closely related.


1. "Gharial" Wildlife Fact Files, USA, IM Pub Inc
2. "Gharial" Animal Card, 1977, Italy
3. "Gharial" Funk & Wagnall's Wildlife Encyclopedia, vol 7, pg 841-842, BPC Pub Ltd, NY NY, 1974