Estimates suggest that reptiles have been on our planet for roughly 315 million years. That is a lot of time for evolution to do its thing.
Today, reptiles are highly diverse and adaptable. They can be found across the globe, occupying a variety of different habitats and ecoregions.
Most species of reptiles are omnivorous. However, there are some reptiles that only eat animal products. Of these, some have evolved to be at the very top of the food chain.
So, what are some reptiles that are apex predators?
Reptile apex predators include the green anaconda, Burmese python, komodo dragon, perentie, Eastern indigo snake, and snapping turtles. Some, such as the king cobra, are highly venomous and prey on other snakes. Others, like the saltwater crocodile, have incredibly powerful jaws for crushing. A range of adaptations have allowed these reptiles to become apex predators.
Apex predators can be found in 3 of the 4 orders of reptiles. The below article is a list of just some of the apex predators we share our planet with.
What (Exactly) Is A Reptile?
Reptiles are a type of air-breathing vertebrate that can be found on all continents except Antarctica.
Reptiles, unlike most mammals, are cold-blooded, lay eggs, and have epidermal scales covering their body.
Being cold-blooded, they rely on the solar energy from the sun to warm up and kick-start their metabolism. Animals that use this method to acquire energy are referred to as ectotherms.
As such, many reptile species can be found in warm climates with abundant sunlight. Australia is reportedly the most biodiverse country for reptile diversity, with over 1,000 recorded species.
Reptiles can be found in an array of habitats, from tropical rainforests to mangrove swamps.
There are four main groups of reptiles. These include turtles (order Testudines), tuataras (order Rhynchocephalia), lizards and snakes (order Squamata) and crocodiles (order Crocodilia). Within these 4 groups, there are thought to be over 8,700 recorded species.
Many reptiles are referred to as living fossils, as their evolutionary history dates back to before dinosaurs (which were also reptiles) roamed the Earth.
It is thought that tuataras are among some of the oldest extant reptiles – with records suggesting their ancestry dates back 200 million years; well before the time of dinosaurs. There are just two species, both of which are endemic to New Zealand.
However, tuataras are not apex predators. Before the arrival of humans to New Zealand, some 1,000 years ago, birds of prey were the only natural predators of tuataras. Now, with the introduction of mammals such as rats and cats, tuataras have a lot of predators.
However, we’re not here to talk about tuataras and their predators. We’re here to look at the apex predators of the reptilian world. But first, what is an apex predator?
What Is An Apex Predator?
An apex predator, otherwise known as a top predator, are typically carnivorous animals that sit at the top of the food chain and have no natural predators.
These predators occupy the highest trophic level within a food web and have far-reaching effects on entire ecosystems and evolutionary processes.
Apex predators control prey numbers, as well as the number of smaller predators.
Many apex predators are also keystone species – a species on which other species in an ecosystem may largely depend on. Without them, drastic, and often negative, changes will affect entire ecosystems, almost to the point of collapse.
Many mammals, such as wolves and bears, are apex predators. However, apex predators can be found within nearly all animal groups, including reptiles.
4 Snake Apex Predators
“I’ve had it with these silly snakes on this silly plane”.
I may have changed some of the words, but hopefully, you get the “Snakes on a Plane” reference.
In most stories, snakes are the antagonists. The evil one. The character to be wary of. The monsters that have to be killed.
After arachnophobia, ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) is one of the most common fears out there.
For the most part, snakes are docile and mild-mannered. They have undergone drastic evolution from other reptiles to successfully exploit many ecological niches and are an integral part of any healthy ecosystem.
However, there are a few species of snake that are at the very top of the food chain. Some have incredibly potent toxins that can kill a person, while others will literally squeeze the life right out of a victim.
1. Green Anaconda
“There’s always a bigger fish”
Well, not if you’re the green anaconda.
Although it may not be the longest snake in the world, the green anaconda is certainly the heaviest. A record breaking monster, recorded at 227 kg and 8.4 meters in length, is the heaviest extant snake ever recorded.
Due to their impressively large size, green anacondas have no natural predators. This is certainly the case for females, which grow larger than the males. However, there have been reports of both caimans and jaguars targeting smaller anacondas.
Green anacondas can typically be found in shallow, slow-moving rivers and streams of tropical rainforests in the northern regions of South America.
Although they can be found on land, they are well adapted to aquatic life. Here, is where they hunt a variety of aquatic and semi-aquatic prey species such as capybaras, caiman, and large birds. Occasionally, terrestrial animals, such as deer, are on the menu. And, on extremely rare occurrences, even humans.
Anacondas do not have venom. Like all boas, they constrict their prey. With every exhalation from their prey, the thick, muscular body of the green anaconda tightens around its victim until eventually it suffocates.
2. Burmese Python
Similar to the green anaconda, mature adult Burmese pythons have few, if any, natural predators.
Reports of big cats, such as leopards, may occasionally prey on Burmese pythons, but this has seldom been reported.
Found in the jungles and grassy marshes of Southeast Asia, Burmese pythons are thought to take second place when it comes to the title of longest snake (second only to the reticulated python), measuring lengths of up to 7 meters.
Like the anaconda, Burmese pythons are excellent swimmers and can stay submerged for up to 30 minutes. However, as mature adults, they are mostly found on the ground. Here, they hunt a range of mammal and bird species.
The head of the Burmese python contains stretchy connective tissue between the skull and the lower jaw, allowing them to open their mouths incredibly wide. This special adaptation, once thought to be facilitated by unhinging their jaws, allows Burmese pythons to eat prey up to 5 times their size.
Due to human encroachment on wild areas, pythons are often responsible for the consumption of livestock species such as pigs and cattle.
They are active hunters, relying on chemical receptors on their tongue and heat sensors along their jaw. Once a prey has been located, they strike with sharp teeth and then coil around their victim, constricting them until they are suffocated.
Unfortunately, due to accidental escapes and intentional releases from the exotic pet trade, the Burmese python is now considered an invasive species in North America. They have been directly linked to the decrease in a variety of mammal populations, including raccoons, bobcats, and marsh rabbits.
3. King Cobra
The cobra killer. The king of all cobras. Call it what you will. Native to Asia, the adaptable king cobra is infamous.
Reaching lengths of 5.4 meters, the king cobra is the longest venomous snake in the world.
And boy, is it venomous.
A cocktail of fast-acting neurotoxins takes an almost immediate effect on its prey’s nervous and respiratory system, causing respiratory arrest and heart failure. A dose of venom from a single bite is capable of killing 20 humans.
Fortunately for us, king cobras prey mostly on cold-blood vertebrates, such as other snakes. They will actively hunt nonvenomous species, such as pythons and rat snakes, as well as venomous snakes, such as other cobras and kraits.
If, however, they do feel threatened, the king cobra will raise the front of their body up to a meter off the ground. They can flatten their neck ribs, forming a hood to appear larger and more threatening.
You are most likely to find king cobras near streams in forests or bamboo thickets around Northern India and throughout Malaysia and the Philippines.
4. Eastern Indigo Snake
Although significantly smaller than the snakes listed above, at just over 2 meters, the Eastern indigo snake is the longest snake in North America.
This non-venomous species of snake is an apex predator and a snake-hunting specialist. They will even take on highly venomous species such as the rattlesnake. Their tolerance to the rattlesnake venom has made the Eastern Indigo snake a formidable hunter.
Despite their hunting specialisms, populations of the Eastern indigo snake have drastically fallen in their native range of Florida and a few other Southern states. This has been caused by habitat destruction of their pine-oak forests, as well as collisions with vehicles.
Recent conservation efforts to reintroduce the Eastern indigo snake have been successful, with over 200 snakes released since 2010 by just a single conservation organization. Other charities have been working on similar projects.
The Eastern indigo snake is often confused with the North American racer snake. Where indigo snakes have a slight blue iridescence to their bodies, the racer snakes have a duller black body.
2 Lizard Apex Predators
When we think of lizards, what springs to mind? Perhaps it’s the agile wall lizards you see basking on walls. Or is it the chameleon, the master of disguise?
But did you know, there are some lizards that are apex predators? Think of them as modern-day dinosaurs.
1. Komodo Dragon
Dragons are the stuff of myths and legends.
And, despite not breathing fire and lacking wings, the Komodo dragon is no myth and all legend.
Measuring just over 3 meters in length, and coming in close to 70 kg, the Komodo dragon is the largest living species of lizard found anywhere on Earth.
Most of us are familiar that the Komodo dragon can be found, rather unsurprisingly, on the island of Komodo, Indonesia. However, they can also be found across the tropical savanna forests of other Indonesian islands, including Rintja, Padar, and Flores.
Komodo dragons will eat just about anything they find – whether it be from scavenging carcasses, or actively stalking prey. Although Timor deer are perhaps the most sought-after prey for a Komodo dragon, they will consume meat of all sizes – from small rodents to large water buffalo, as well as other Komodo dragons (yes, they are cannibalistic).
Although Komodo dragons can run at speeds of up to 20 kph, they prefer to play the long game when it comes to hunting.
Despite many hunts not resulting in an immediate kill, Komodo dragons have one of the most dangerous bites in the Animal Kingdom.
Not only do they possess copious quantities of bacteria in their saliva, but Komodo dragons also have a venom gland in their lower jaw. The venom decreases blood pressure and prevents blood from clotting, sending the prey into shock.
Within four days, depending on the size of the prey, their prey will be dead. Using their keen sense of smell and sharp, serrated teeth, the Komodo dragon rips chunks of flesh from its victims.
This is a lizard you do not want to mess with.
Australia’s largest lizard species, the perentie, is a species of monitor lizard that can be found in the arid Australian bush.
Despite its large size, growing to lengths of up to 2.5 meters, very little is known about this lizard. It can be found in the heart of Australia, far away from habitable human land.
In their range, perenties are apex predators and do not have any natural predators.
Like the Komodo dragon, scientists speculate that perenties are capable of envenomating prey. This helps them tackle larger prey species, such as baby kangaroos, wallabies, and other small marsupials.
However, much of the perentie’s diet consists of other reptiles, especially other lizards. Perenties have been observed feeding on a variety of other monitor lizard species, as well as their own species.
This behavior, known as intraguild predation, could be a form of adaptation to life in the Outback.
In vast desert lands, food can be scarce. Killing and eating potential competitors of different species may represent a combination of both predation and competition. Not only does the perentie get to successfully feed, but it also reduces competition, allowing it to forage on a wide range of prey.
1 Turtle Apex Predators
Testudines, which include turtles, tortoises, and terrapins, are generally thought of as peaceful herbivores.
And, whilst this may be true for the majority of species within this order, this is not always the case…
There are 5 species of snapping turtle distributed across The Americas: the alligator snapping turtle, the common snapping turtle, the Suwannee snapping turtle, the Central American snapping turtle, and the South American snapping turtle.
As mature adults, all 5 of the snapping turtles are considered apex predators. Some species have even been known to bite the finger of a human clean off. However, developing eggs and juvenile snapping turtles are at risk of predation from species such as herons and alligators.
To hunt, they lay in ambush, patiently waiting for prey to come to them. Although considered omnivorous, most of their diet comprises animal matter, such as fish and other aquatic animals. However, snapping turtles have also been observed feeding on small mammals.
As they wait motionlessly in the water, some species, such as the alligator snapping turtle, will use a worm-like appendage on their tongues to lure unsuspecting prey.
When a curious fish, or other aquatic prey, comes to investigate the potential worm-like prey, the snapping turtle strikes with lightning speed and devastating consequences.
3 Crocodile Apex Predators
The crocodilians are a group of reptiles that consist of crocodiles, alligators, caimans, and gharials.
Of all the extant reptile species, those belonging to the order Crocodilia are perhaps some of the most recognizable apex predators.
However, some species, such as the black caiman of South America, is a near-apex predator. While it is high up on the food chain, it is regularly preyed upon by other apex predators of the region, such as the green anaconda or jaguar.
1. Saltwater Crocodile
Often exceeding lengths of 6.5 meters, and weighing in over 1,000 kg, the saltwater crocodile, or salties, is the largest living reptile found on our planet.
Saltwater crocodiles, as the name suggests, inhabit brackish and freshwater regions of Eastern India, Southeast Asia, and Northern Australia. However, they are highly adaptable and have been observed swimming far out at sea, in places such as the Great Barrier Reef.
A formidable ambush predator, large saltwater crocodiles are capable of eating just about anything that strays too close – from mammals, such as water buffalo, to fish, such as sharks!
To tackle such large prey, the saltwater crocodile has a trick or two up its sleeve.
Not only do they have incredibly sharp and big teeth, up to 13 cm long, but they are also thought to have the greatest bite force of any reptile, perhaps even any living animal.
Through measurable bite tests, saltwater crocodiles were shown to bite down with an impressive 3,700 psi (pounds per square inch). This is nearly 4 times more powerful than the bite of a lion or hyena.
I know who I’ll be betting on.
2. Nile Crocodile
Just shy of 6 meters, the Nile crocodile is the second largest crocodile species.
Although they may not be the biggest, Nile crocodiles certainly pose the biggest threat to humans – with an estimated 200 fatal attacks recorded per year.
Relatively widespread, the Nile crocodile can be found throughout rivers, marshes, and mangrove swamps in approximately 26 countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the Nile basin, and Madagascar.
As much as 70% of the Nile crocodile’s diet comprises fish. However, individuals that surpass a certain size, actively feed on larger animals, such as African game.
One of the most important feeding times for the Nile crocodile is The Great Migration.
In Southern Serengeti, Tanzania, over 1 million animals – including wildebeest, zebra, and antelope – take part in the annual migration. During this time, Nile crocodiles congregate in vast numbers in the Mari River.
Many animals crossing the river fall victim to the powerful jaws of the crocodile. However, one of the most infamous crocodile behaviors is the death roll.
Grasping onto prey with its teeth, the Nile crocodile will perform a series of barrel rolls. Not only is this technique likely to drown prey, but it is also an easy way for crocodiles to tear flesh from limbs and swallow chunks whole – after all, a crocodile cannot chew food.
A crocodilian species that is the same, but different.
If you were to cover the head of a gharial with a paper bag, you could be looking at any other crocodile species. However, remove the bag, and the differences are stark.
Both male and female gharials have elongated, narrow snouts with many sharp interlocking teeth – the most teeth of any crocodilian species.
While sexual dimorphism – or differing characteristics between sexes – is common among crocodilians, gharials have some of the most pronounced sexual dimorphic traits.
At the tip of their long snout, males develop a bulbous growth, or ghara. One of the main functions of the ghara is for noise production. By creating a loud buzzing sound, male gharials can attract mates and ward off any potential competitors.
Once common throughout the Indian subcontinent, gharial populations have reduced drastically. Owing to habitat loss, pollution, and persecution, these now critically endangered reptiles can only be found in Nepal and Northern India.
However, ongoing efforts by a variety of NGOs have seen 818 juvenile gharials released back into their native river ranges since 2008.
Within these river systems, the 5-meter-long gharial is the apex predator, preying on a range of fish species. Their elongated snouts and sharp teeth are the perfect tool for catching fast, and often slippery, prey.
Despite being at the top of the food chain with no natural predators, many apex predators are or have been, relentlessly hunted and persecuted at the hands of humankind.
Whether it’s to harvest their skin for “luxury” fashion accessories, or to keep populations in check because we fear them, populations of apex predators are declining. Without the dedicated conservation projects helping to preserve numbers, we could see huge ecological collapses if we allow the continued persecution of reptile apex predators.
With hundreds of millions of years on planet Earth, some reptiles have evolved to become some of the most effective predators. Adaptations, such as powerful bites, strong muscles, and sharp teeth have allowed apex predators to thrive.
We shouldn’t fear them. Instead, we should endeavor to understand them. Learn from them. Protect them.