Granted, it can be daunting to look past the teeth. Getting up close to that wide, toothy, crocodile grin — even from the safe remove of a zoo exhibit or TV screen — it's hard not to think about becoming a meal.
The Academy of Natural Sciences hopes to turn some of that (understandable) fear into a healthy respect with the new exhibit, "Crocs: Ancient Predators in a Modern World," opening Saturday.
After all, the natural world's crocodilians — members of the order that includes not only crocodiles and alligators but also 20-plus other species — have been remarkably resilient over the course of evolutionary time.
"For a little bit of scale," says Jennifer Sontchi, the Academy's senior exhibits director, "modern humans as we know them – homo sapiens — have been around for about 200,000 years. Crocodilians have been around for about 200 million years. They're a really wildly successful group of animals."
A dozen or so living examples of that success will take up temporary residence at the academy during the next few months, courtesy of Clyde Peeling's Reptiland in Allenwood, which created the exhibit. The live crocs include an American alligator, a Siamese crocodile, and a nest of baby alligators — adorable, right?
Coming "face-to-snout" with actual crocodilians is undoubtedly the highlight of the experience, Sontchi says. "You can look at models all day, but seeing a real animal right in front of you makes a bigger and better impression than any kind of TV show."
The show, which runs through May 6, will also include a full-scale model of Gromek, a croc that was captured in Papua, New Guinea, and raised on an alligator farm, where he grew to nearly 18 feet long and almost 2,000 pounds. There are also artifacts, videos, and interactive activities to engage visitors in the lives of these animals.
The preparations for the exhibition have been a learning experience even for Sontchi, who's been surprised by what she's discovered. Croc communication, for example, is more intricate and fascinating than you might expect.
"As it turns out, they have very intricate social lives. They communicate with all these pips and grunts and hisses as well as their body posture. They can communicate to each other through water vibrations, which is amazing," she says.
"They're much more interesting and diverse than I had ever really appreciated, so I've just been soaking in how cool they are," she says. "One thing that people should take away is that crocs are not just these brutish, angry, mean creatures that just want to bite you."
Their long history on the planet explains the "Ancient Predators" part of the show's title, but what of the "Modern World?"
Sontchi says one major impetus of the exhibit is to educate visitors on the threats of habitat destruction, as humans encroach on the spaces that crocs inhabit on the boundaries of land and water — in Florida, for instance.
"The realization that a species that's been around for 20 million years can be snuffed out in a relatively microscopic amount of time because of humans is sobering," Sontchi says. "This is in our hands. Conservation efforts in Florida have been successful and the numbers of breeding females are rising, so ultimately it's a message of hope, of understanding that whether or not these animals are going to be here in another hundred years is directly up to us."