Skull of a great meat-eater from the distant East Indies.
By Alan O'Connor
The entry for this specimen, in the acquisition register of the National Museum of Ireland – Natural History, reads:
“1927.29. 10th May, 1927; Crocodile skull from 'old man-eating C. Measuring 13 ft 9 in. Shot at Java. The axe-head* was found embedded in his tail.'; Transferred from Art Division, ex Mahaffy Collection; Java, Vella Lavella, Solomon Islands; probably a form of C. porosus!†”
The specimen consists of the fleshless skull and lower jaws, now disarticulated from one another. The distinctive ornamentation of the skull-bones, found in all crocodilians, is immediately apparent. The positioning of the eyes, ears and nostrils, high on the head, allowed the animal to remain almost completely submerged as it breathed and watched above the surface.
What is a saltwater crocodile?
At up to seven metres in length, and 1.5 tonnes in weight, the saltwater crocodile (also known as the Indo-Pacific crocodile) is the world’s largest surviving species of reptile. It has a wide distribution in the West Pacific and East Indian Ocean; from the Malay Peninsula through to New Guinea and Australia. It is primarily an inhabitant of brackish coastal habitats, but can also be found up to 100 km inland on major rivers, and is even capable of swimming across the open ocean.
A fully-grown saltwater crocodile takes a wide variety of prey, and has no natural enemy except man. One book, published in 1933, described saltwater crocodiles thus:
“Twenty-foot specimens have been recorded and through the larger islands of the Malay Archipelago tales are many of the loss of human life owing to these bold brutes.”
According to the museum’s archives, this particular crocodile was a known man-eater.
Why is it in the Museum?
The specimen is likely to have arrived in Ireland via Mr Arthur Mahaffy O.B.E. (1869-1919). A native of Howth, Mr Mahaffy was governor of the largest of the British Solomon Islands for four years in the early twentieth century, and it seems likely that he acquired the specimen at this time.
This skull is part of the museum’s scientific collection, and is not on public display. Specimens of the crocodile family, including a juvenile saltwater crocodile, could once be seen on the balcony levels of the NMI - Natural History on Merrion Street, Dublin. Unfortunately, this area is currently closed to the public.
Ditmars, R.L. (1933), Reptiles of the World. The crocodilians, lizards, snakes, turtles and tortoises of the eastern and western hemispheres.Revised edition. The Macmillan Company, New York.
Mr Mahaffy’s obituary was taken from The Irish Times (Thursday, October 30th, 1919).
*This axe is still in possession of the Art and Industrial Division of the National Museum of Ireland, but is not on public display. The artefact’s number is AE:1923.240a.
†The scientific name for the saltwater crocodile is Crocodylus porosus. The word Crocodylus is derived from the greek ‘Kroko-drilos,’ meaning ‘pebble worm.’