Thursday, August 13, 2015

Is There Really a Crocodile "Dentist"?

"I wonder if we'll ever know."

So ends the Animal Partners poem called "Croc Dentist." The story behind the poem is an interesting one.

When I was researching animal partnerships that I might want to include in my book Animal Partners, I came across a photo purporting to show an Egyptian plover sitting in the mouth of a crocodile. I had seen this image before, and just assumed it was real (not artificially created or "photoshopped").

However, further research revealed that this is not an actual photograph. The _Warren Photographic_ website displays this picture with the following disclaimer:
WP00955 / Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) with Egyptian Plover or Crocodile Bird (Pluvianus aegyptius) - digital reconstruction of popular myth attributed to Herodotus, 5th Century BC.  Africa. [emphasis mine]
_Bird Families of the World _ tells us that "the Egyptian Plover, aka 'Crocodile Bird' . . .   is a little known shorebird whose original claim to fame was the now discredited story that it picked the teeth of crocodiles!" [emphasis mine]

The folks at _Birdorable_ have covered this as well:
During a visit to Egypt in 459 BC, the Greek historian Herodotus noted having seen a small bird picking out food from the mouth of a crocodile. The behavior was presumed to be symbiotic, or beneficial to both animals. The crocodile got a nice teeth cleaning, and the bird got an easy meal. The bird named in Herodotus' account was an Egyptian Plover. Our first clue that this may not be true is the fact that Herodotus, while often recognized as the world's first historian, had a nickname of his own: "The Father of Lies." [emphasis mine]
So rather than perpetuate this popular myth (awesome though it may be), I decided I would include the crocodile-plover partnership in Animal Partners, but would make it clear that its authenticity has been questioned. The truth is, we have no actual photographic evidence of this relationship, and until such evidence can be provided, we cannot assume that such a relationship exists.

copyright Shennen Bersani

From Animal Partners by Scotti Cohn:

"Behold the wily crocodile.
Who will scrub his pointy smile?
Who will hop between those jaws,
defying all of nature's laws?

Some folks say a plover's beak
cleans those choppers cheek to cheek
Others say it isn't so.
I wonder if we'll ever know?"