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Nest-site selection by crocodiles at a rocky site in the Australian tropics: Making the best of a bad lot



Most animals select nest sites non-randomly, reflecting benefits of specific locations or incubation conditions for offspring viability as well as risks or costs to the reproducing adult. If few or no available nest sites offer suitable conditions, we expect animals to make the best of a bad lot, by selecting nest sites that provide the best conditions available. In tropical north-western Australia, freshwater crocodiles (Crocodylus johnstoni: Crocodylidae) in a large artificial lake (Lake Argyle) experience this challenge: the types of nest sites used by this species in other parts of its range (moist, shaded sandy soils, far from the water's edge) are scarce. Measurements of 89 crocodile nests and 89 test holes (abandoned attempts at nesting) at Lake Argyle, and 28 nests on the nearby Ord River, show that most areas along the lakeshore are too steep and rocky for nesting. Crocodiles at the lake therefore are forced to nest at sites that are sun-exposed, in dry gravelly substrates, and close to the water's edge. Comparisons of test holes and actual nests within such areas show that nesting crocodiles actively select sites that are less rocky, are suitable hydrically, and that provide stable thermal regimes. Those hydric and thermal attributes allow successful development of the offspring. The ability of freshwater crocodiles in Lake Argyle to flexibly modify their nest-site selection criteria, under severe constraints enforced by this open rocky landscape, are critical to the species' success in exploiting the opportunity created by the dam's construction.