A Tomistoma By Any Other Name…

By Sandy Masuo

Tomistoma (aka false gharial) at the LA Zoo

Tomistoma (aka false gharial) seems to glide through the water in its L.A. Zoo home (Photo by Jamie Pham)

On occasion, the Los Angeles Zoo assists the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service with undercover investigations, also known as “sting operations.” The biggest reptile confiscation in U.S. history occurred in 1998. The five-year investigation, dubbed “Operation Chameleon,” resulted in the arrest of a notorious international wildlife dealer and the confiscation of a cache of rare reptiles. The Zoo received a majority of the seized animals—including four species of critically endangered tortoises, Komodo dragons, Chinese alligators, and false gharials, or tomistomas.

Tomistoma Female (Photo by Jamie Pham)

Tomistoma female (Photo by Jamie Pham)

False gharials (alternately spelled “gavials”) are similar in appearance to Indian gharials (also spelled “gavials”). True gharials (genus Gavialis) are named for a bulbous growth that forms on the snouts of mature males. This growth is called a ghara after the Hindi word for pot because of its shape. False gharials do not develop these. Confused? That’s why false gharials are now referred to as tomistomas—the name of their genus. It may be trickier to pronounce—but it’s easier to distinguish from gharial.

The tomistomas rescued in Operation Chameleon were mere hatchlings at the time and in 2007 were transferred to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida while the LAIR was under construction. On February 24, 2012, the tomisomas (much larger after five years of growth) were introduced to their new home—the temperature-controlled pool adjacent to the LAIR.

The IUCN status of this species has fluctuated from endangered to vulnerable, but this is due to more accurate assessment of wild populations, not an increase in numbers. Like virtually all wildlife in Southeast Asia, the small documented populations are fragmented and under threat from habitat loss. So it was very exciting when, in 2015, the word was given that L.A. Zoo would be receiving a female tomistoma to pair with one of the males in hopes of producing babies.

Tomistoma, aka False Gharial (Photo by Charlie Morey)

Tomistoma, aka False Gharial (Photo by Charlie Morey)

On October 7, 2015, the female false gharial/tomistoma arrived from Singapore Zoo and started her required quarantine in a temporary exhibit prepared for her. About two weeks later, the smaller of the two males was transferred to Saint Louis Zoo so that this female could be paired with the remaining male. On February 9 this year, just in time for Valentine’s Day, the male and female tomistoma (false gharials) moved in together. It will take some time for them to get accustomed to one another, but hopefully there will be eggs (and babies) in the future—maybe in time for World Tomistoma Day next year!