Gharial: The Rare Crocodilian With an Extremely Narrow Snout

By: Sascha Bos  | 
Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) on sand-colored dirt
This particular gharial, a river-dwelling crocodilian, lives at Chambal National Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, India. Kevin Schafer / Getty Images

The gharial is one of the rarest and most unusual-looking crocodilian species on the planet. Learn more about this unique species and discover what conservation groups are doing to protect gharial populations.

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Gharial Basics

The gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), also called gavial, is a river-dwelling crocodilian species that was once prevalent on the Indian subcontinent and is now critically endangered.

The first thing most people notice about gharials is their long, narrow snout. A gharial will sweep its slender snout sideways to catch fish with its sharp teeth.

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This predominantly aquatic crocodilian inhabits rivers and females dig their nests on riverbanks during the dry season. Adult gharials typically reach a body length of 12 to 15 feet (4 to 5 meters) long.

The Ghara

The gharial is the only living crocodilian with highly visible sexual dimorphism, meaning mature males are easy to distinguish from females. Male gharials develop a hollow bulbous nasal protuberance at the end of their long snout once they reach sexual maturity.

This bulbous growth, known as a ghara (after the clay pot it resembles) gives the species its common name, "gharial." Adult males use their ghara to make a buzzing noise.

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The False Gharial

The gharial is not to be confused with the Malayan or false gharial (Tomistoma schlegeli), another river-dwelling, fish-eating crocodile found in Southeast Asia. The two species both have narrow snouts specialized for eating fish, and a 2018 study found the false gharial is the gharial's closest living relative.

Despite these similarities, there are a few key differences, including:

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  • Conservation status: False gharials are less rare than gharials, with an IUCN Red List status of "vulnerable" and an estimated population of several thousand mature individuals, compared to the critically endangered gharial's estimated population of several hundred adults.
  • Habitat: False gharials live in Malaysia and Indonesia; gharials live in Bangladesh, Nepal and India.
  • Color: False gharials are red-brown with dark spots; gharials are green-gray and darken with age.

Gharial Conservation Status

Gharials are on the IUCN Red List as "critically endangered." There are about 650 adult gharials in the wild, with more than three-quarters of the total gharial population living in the protected National Chambal Sanctuary in North India.

Human disruption of the gharial habitat is the biggest threat to the critically endangered gharial, including sand mining — which causes habitat loss by destroying the sand banks gharials use as nesting sites in the dry season — and water control such as dam construction.

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Although people rarely hunt gharials, they do take gharial eggs for food and medicine. Gharials are also at risk of getting caught in gill nets from fishing activity.

Young gharials are more likely to get caught in fishing nets, but adult gharials are vulnerable, too. In June 2023, an adult male gharial was found dead, entangled in a fishing net, in Chitwan National Park, Nepal.

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