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Do crocodiles cry 'crocodile tears'?

Everyone has heard the phrase "crying crocodile tears". It means that the person doing the crying is expressing insincere remorse - either their sadness is not genuine, or they're simply using the tears to gain sympathy where none is deserved. Is this just a fanciful phrase, based upon the ironical concept that a crocodile could cry, or do crocodiles actually cry crocodile tears?

Real crocodile tearsWell yes, as you can see from the photograph on the left, crocodiles do produce crocodile tears! These tears are quite real and, like our own tears, are products of the lachrymal glands. These glands produce a proteinaceous fluid which is secreted behind the nictitating membrane (third eyelid, easily visible in the photograph). The fluid helps to clean the eye, lubricate the passage of the nictitating membrane across the eye's surface, and probably also helps to reduce bacterial growth. Tears are normally only noticeable if the crocodile has been out of the water for a long time and the eyes begin to dry out - which is the case in this photograph where an abnormally large amount of fluid can be seen. The alligator eye (below) shows a normal eye in which only enough fluid has been produced to lubricate the eye, so that no excess fluid is visible.

Alligator eye close-up Although we have established that crocodiles produce tears, of course they do not actually cry - that is a myth. So where does the idea that crocodiles produce tears of insincere remorse actually come from? It is difficult to trace the origin of this particular myth, but it's easy to see why it has become so popular - for an apparently remorseless creature such as a crocodile to actually weep over its victims is a memorable irony which has inspired considerable prose and created a phrase which is still popular today. Apparently the myth was in use by the 13th Century in France. A Franciscan monk called Bartholomaeus Anglicus wrote the following in his encyclopaedia of natural sciences: "If the crocodile findeth a man by the brim of the water, or by the cliff, he slayeth him there if he may, and then weepeth upon him and swalloweth him at last". C.A. Guggisberg, in his 1972 book "Crocodiles: their natural history, folklore and conservation", follows the evidence well. He notes that the 14th Century book "Mendeville's Travels" was responsible for the spread of this myth into popular culture, even making it into the work of Shakespeare. The 16th Century slaver John Hawkins and his crew observed crocodiles in the Carribbean and reported that they would "cry and sobbe like a Christian body". In doing this, it was claimed, they would lure sympathetic victims into range, before surprising them and devouring them. The imagery behind the story is so powerful that belief in it continued well into the 18th and 19th Century. Even today, the phrase continues to be used in literature and the media, and not always without some speculation on whether crocodiles actually cry.

Nictitating membrane in corner of eyeLook at the picture to the left. This shows the eye of Crocodylus johnstoni. All crocodilians possess a nictitating membrane (a 'second eyelid') which sweeps across the surface to both clean the eye and protect it when the crocodile submerges. When the crocodile's eyes are open, the edge of the nictitating membrane is just visible in the corner of the eye. With a little imagination, you could almost see a tear forming...

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