Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

National and World

July 20, 2012

After decades, Cuban crocodiles born at DC zoo

WASHINGTON —

An old gal is a new mom. Dorothy, an endangered Cuban crocodile at the National Zoo, has two new hatchlings.

Dorothy is thought to be 55 years old, and zookeepers in Washington figured she stopped laying eggs years ago, so they were taken by surprise when two little reptiles hatched in July. Scientists kept their eggs in incubators for months, hoping they would survive.

So far they seem healthy and are already nipping at their handlers.

This is the first time in nearly 25 years that the zoo has successfully hatched the critically endangered Cuban crocodiles. Scientists believe there are fewer than 6,000 remaining in the wild in two small areas of Cuba. U.S. zoos are trying to expand the population, though births are rare. There have been a handful of hatchings in Florida and Kentucky zoos in the past decade.

The newest hatchings are considered genetically valuable because their mother, Dorothy, was caught in the wild. She hasn't produced offspring before. Now her offspring can eventually breed in the larger captive population to help sustain the species.

Matthew Evans, supervisory biologist at the National Zoo, said animal keepers were "super excited" to be able to preserve and share Dorothy's valuable genetic diversity.

"This is a really old animal, so we thought our window was kind of lost," Evans said. "To actually have offspring that we're sitting here looking at is just — I can't express to you how cool and exciting that is."

The hatchlings are tiny and aggressive. They already have teeth and know how to use them.

Animal keepers are watching them closely and are keeping them in incubators as they grow. They eat a cricket every few days for nourishment.

Scientists are using the opportunity to observe their behavior and how they learn. The hatchlings are kept separate, though. They hatched several days apart and Cuban crocodiles tend to be aggressive, even toward each other. Many zoos don't keep them because they're difficult to handle.

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