The snakes are gone, but St. Patrick never got rid of the crocs! European Crocodile Networking Meeting 2019
The fourth annual European Croc Networking Meeting (ECNM) has just come to an end. And as the tradition goes, I will provide the people who did not attend with an excerpt of yet another fantastic croc meeting on the croc free continent.
Between the 4th-6th of October, reptile crazies from across Europe slithered into the small Irish town of Kilkenny. Congregating inside the hot and humid tropical halls of the National Reptile Zoo, they were taken care of by the experienced hands of the host, James Hennessy.
The ECNM is a newcomer among the scientific conferences on the continent, but it has come a long way in just four years. It no longer only provides presentations on news from the world of crocodilian management and research, but a host of opportunities to learn about all things crocodilian through poster sessions, discussions and workshops. Best of all? The news of a new grant scheme for anyone interested in expanding our crocodilian knowledge!
The weekend of crocodilian conversations kicked off Friday afternoon with a workshop on training captive crocodilians. James Hennessy showcased his skills and techniques with his two American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis).
Not only does this make it a whole lot safer to work with these large predators, it also reduces stress in the animals and competition between animals in a collection, increasing the welfare of captive animals. It is also really cool to watch a large alligator wait patiently for his food mere feet away from his human companion, like any other companion animal. Despite the reputation of these animals as little more than muscular brutes, crocodilians display high levels of intelligence and can complete quite complicated tasks, both with persistent training and at their own accord.
After the workshop we were shuttled back to the National Reptile Zoos new location close to Kilkenny city center. Here the organizing committee had arranged light dinner and some drinks for the attendees, who then could proceed to mingle and have a peak behind the scenes of the construction of the new zoo.
The second day started up where the first one left off, with Stephan Reber speaking about his work at Lund University’s Dinosaurian Cognition Project. Stephan’s day job is trying to figure out what makes crocs so clever, how they use their brain power, and how their brain is different from other vertebrates.
As the day went on the speaker line up included talks on more crocodilian training, conservation efforts, and exploring the crocodilian evolutionary lineages through CT-scanning old croc skulls. For once even I got to speak and presented on my findings from my investigations into crocodilian immunology, parasitism and human impacts on crocs health (full list of speakers is found here).
The keynote speaker of the conference was Dr. Jeff Lang who spoke on his findings from decades of researching one of the rarest crocodilians on the planet, the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus). His talk was only scratching the surface of the knowledge this man possesses. His talk turned out to be a captivating story of exploration, exploitation, education and research across the gharials range in India and Nepal. From the threats of sand mining on the banks of rivers throughout India, to the amazing parental care of gharials who will not only defend their own babies, but actually seem to have a form of communal hatchling care.
When the speakers were all talked out, Rob Gandola from the University College Dublin and Iri Gill from Chester Zoo lead the next workshop. This time the topic was experimental design. Going over common pit falls, the importance of good experimental design and how this also can be applied to zoo work. The workshop leaders addressed a crowd of both novice and more experienced researchers and croc keepers.
The last day of the conference had more crocodilian knowledge lurking with speakers such as Flavio Morrissiey who told us about fundraising for crocodile research and conservation through CrocFest, a concept which has brought in about half a million US dollars to croc conservation in less than ten years. All through a recipe consisting of BBQ, reptile nerds and beer!
Iri Gill wrapped up the presentations by showcasing some incredible work of crocodile training from Chester Zoo. After just a year of training they can now do health checks and blood draws on a large tomistoma (Tomistoma schlegelii). They do this at the zoo with a keeper in the pool with the animal, while the animal is unrestrained. An incredible feat seeing that this is an animal in its fifties, who has never been worked with in a training situation. To make the achievement even more incredible Chester Zoo also had to deal with a huge fire which destroyed the animal’s enclosure just this year. An inspirational story for anyone ever faced by setbacks during their work.
To wrap it all up Dr. Marisa Tellez from the Crocodile Research Coalition ran a workshop on Field techniques and community outreach. Her message is clear; Conservation is not about wildlife, it’s about people. You will be able to do so much more with the support of locals, than you could ever do without locals backing your cause.
And just like that the fourth annual ECNM came to an end. A weekend filled with mingling among likeminded croc-crazy people, new science, zoo visits, great food and drinks, and a host of new opportunities for both croc experts and novices.
Until next time!