If I were being attacked by a crocodile, I’d high tail it for high ground, preferably in the form of a nice, sturdy tree to climb up. With their stocky, solid bodies, crocodiles don’t look like they’re adapted for tree-climbing, and I figure I’d be pretty safe. As it turns out, though, I might be making a very poor life choice: a new study shows that crocodiles, despite all odds, can and do climb trees. Frequently. So I wouldn’t be enjoying the safety of my arboreal perch for long.
The researchers studied crocodiles in Australia, North America, and Africa, to get a range of crocodilian populations and behaviors. What they found was that in areas where there’s limited ground for basking, the animals will climb trees to access sun, and can in fact clamber all the way up to the crowns of trees to access some rays. Crocodiles, it would appear, take sunbathing even more seriously than supermodels.
However, their basking habits are bad news for hominids. People in regions where crocodiles are common are accustomed to keeping a lookout at ground level, and to being especially careful around sunny patches of ground and water. They aren’t, however, used to looking up for potential predators. A person walking through crocodile territory might be perceived as a threat — or a snack — and could be beset from above, which aside from being most unpleasant would be entirely unexpected. That means that people need to be warned about the potential dangers of crocodiles and the importance of looking everywhere for them, especially in their known territories.
Trees provide a great vantage point for crocodiles, allowing them to keep an eye out for potential rivals, animals stepping into their territory, and, of course, prey. Since many animals, not just humans, aren’t accustomed to looking for for potential predators, trees also provide an ideal camouflage spot for an ambush. A waiting crocodile can catch some rays while waiting for dinner to stroll by and drop straight onto whatever it’s hunting; the height combined with the heft of the crocodile would create quite a punch.
This study shows that crocodiles are extremely agile, something researchers already knew, but appreciated having confirmation on. In observations, researchers saw crocodiles approaching and resolving tree-climbing problems with remarkable physical and mental agility. They point out that given the bone structure of the crocodile, there’s nothing to suggest that the animals could climb trees; they don’t appear to have the physical adaptations needed. These nature-defying animals are a warning sign to people studying physical evidence of long-gone species in the form of fossils and skeletal remains: it’s possible that people may be making incorrect assumptions on the basis of found fossils, without living animals to observe.
Now that we know crocodiles are such avid climbers, walkers and other visitors to crocodile territory will have to be more careful, especially in shaded areas where the animals would have to climb up to access light for sunbathing. It’s important to keep an eye upward as well as towards the ground to scan for anything that might be lurking above.
Photo credit: Radek Vitoul.