Coco’s species is designated as critically endangered – one step before extinction in the wild, as listed on the World Conservation Union’s (ICUN’s) Red List of Animals. The total population size is estimated around 4,000. El Cocodrilo de Cuba is part of a family of New World crocodilians including alligators and. Its average size is 10.5 feet (3.2 meters). However some males grow to 15 feet (4.5 meters). They weigh between 150 to 180 pounds (68 to 81 kilograms), but some males have logged in at 475 pounds (215 kilograms) or more. They can live up to 75 years.
They have a short, broad head and high bony ridges behind each eye. Unlike other crocodilians, the Cuban variety has short toes that lack webbing enabling them to move with agility, speed and power. A strong tail aids in jumping, running and swimming. It’s equally at home in water or on land. The cocodrilo’s coloring consists of black and yellow patterns on their scaly topside and a pale uniform belly.
The Cuban crocodile has a tiny geographical range. It prefers fresh water marshes or swamps similar to Florida’s Everglades. They don’t like saltwater and only exist in Cuba’s Zapata Swamp, a one-million-acre (404,600 hectare) wilderness in Matanzas province, and in the Lanier Swamp on Isla de Juventud. It formerly ranged across Cuba and in the Bahaman and Cayman islands.
Temperature determines much of the animal’s existence since it cannot generate heat metabolically. They wake up cold and groggy and after several hours sunbathing or lounging in warm water they are hungry and ready for action. Aggressive pack hunters, they cooperate in killing and feeding, yet relate to each other according to a hierarchy of dominance based on gender, size and temperament.
Coco’s breeding season begins in May and last for up to three months. Females dig hole nests in swampy soil or build mound nests of organic detritus. She lays between 30 eggs 40 eggs, but sometimes as many as 60 depending on her size and age. The eggs are two to three inches (5 to 7.5 cm) in length and weigh a quarter pound (112 grams). Eggs hatch 58 to 70 day later from late August to early September. Sex is determined by nest temperature. Males occur only when the temperature is 86 to 89.5° F (30 to 32° C). Females result when the temperate is either higher or lower.
Baby cocodrilos face many obstacles, primarily predation. Only about one percent of babies survive. Mammals, reptiles, birds, mature crocodiles, and humans eat eggs and hatchlings. Juvenile cocodrilos feed on insects, crustaceans, tadpoles and small fish. Adults dine on larger fish and mammals, and their favorite meal is turtles. Fossil records show they once fed on now-extinct giant ground sloths, which may have led to the evolution of their blunt rear teeth, today used for crushing turtle shells.
Once abundant, Cuban crocodile numbers plummeted following centuries of widespread destruction of wetlands for agriculture, heavy hunting, and the introduction of common caiman (Caiman crocodilus) and American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), with which Cuban crocodiles interbreed. Zoos and farms are breeding pure Cuban crocodiles that may some day join wild ones. Intensive Cuban conservation measures have helped the Zapata Swamp crocodile numbers stabilize. By saving Cuban crocodile habitat many other rare and endangered plants, birds, reptiles and mammals have benefited too. Fortunately, Cuban conservation methods are holding ground against the demise of Coco and his kind.