Crocodiles Climb Trees To Bask In The Sun, Keep An Eye On Prey And Predators

By Josh Lieberman on February 11, 2014 3:11 PM EST

crocodile
Crocodiles climb trees—sometimes going all the way up to a tree's crown—according to researchers from the University of Tennessee. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As if crocodiles weren't already frightening enough, new research has found that some croc species can climb trees. Although crocodiles in trees have been observed before, this new study, published in the journal Herpetology Notes, is the first to focus on crocodiles' climbing behavior. Researchers from the University of Tennessee relied on anecdotal reports, previous studies and their own observations of crocodiles on three continents to document four tree-climbing croc species: Australian freshwater crocodiles, American crocodiles, Central African slender-snouted crocodiles and Nile crocodiles. 

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The heights to which each of the four crocodile species climb depends on their size, the authors found. Smaller crocodiles climbed higher up and farther out in trees than larger ones did. Smaller crocodiles were observed climbing to a tree's crown, roughly 13 feet high, and they were also able to climb about 16.5 feet out on a branch.   

"Climbing a steep hill or steep branch is mechanically similar, assuming the branch is wide enough to walk on," wrote the study authors. "Still, the ability to climb vertically is a measure of crocodiles' spectacular agility on land."

So why do crocodiles climb trees in the first place? The authors have two theories: crocs do it to bask in the sun and to keep an eye on both predators and prey. "The most frequent observations of tree-basking were in areas where there were few places to bask on the ground, implying that the individuals needed alternatives for regulating their body temperature," the authors wrote. "Likewise, their wary nature suggests that climbing leads to improved site surveillance of potential threats and prey." Crocodiles would frequently jump off trees and into the water when researchers approached, leading them to believe that crocodiles were using the trees to surveil--and then get away from--predators.     

Interestingly, crocodiles seem to have gained the ability to climb trees without noticeable physical adaptations. The researchers suggest that paleontologists take these findings into account when examining crocodile fossils, as the fossil record alone might offer any insight into behaviors like tree climbing.  

The study was led by Vladimir Dinets, who in December 2013 led another study looking into crocodile behavior. That research, published in  the journal Ethology Ecology & Evolution, found that crocodiles balance sticks on their snouts in order to attract birds looking for nest materials. Instead of getting the stick, the bird gets eaten. Poor bird. 

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