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Beware in the Bayou: Alligators and Crocodiles Can Climb

 

You might think of crocodiles lurking in the water or perhaps sunning themselves on a riverbank, but it turns out these toothy reptiles’ domain extends to the upper branches of trees.

A new study in Herpetology Notes documents the surprisingly common tree-climbing behavior in crocodiles and their close cousins, alligators. Even without any special anatomic adaptations for gripping branches, crocodiles often make their way up trees, sometimes going as high as the crown and out onto large limbs.

Photo of an American alligator on a tree branch in Pearl River Delta, Mississippi.
An American alligator perches on a tree branch in Pearl River Delta, Mississippi.
Photograph by Kristine Gingras with permission

Vladimir Dinets, a research assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and lead author on the paper, said it didn’t occur to him to look for crocodiles overhead. But in the course of researching their natural behaviors, he and his colleagues noticed a number of the animals in trees and became curious. On three continents—North America, Africa, and Australia—they observed four different species climbing trees.

Dinets and his fellow researchers combed the scientific literature but found only three scientific reports describing tree-climbing crocodiles, yet they discovered several anecdotal accounts by people living near crocodilian habitat.

“People who work or live around crocodiles knew about this behavior,” says Dinets. “It’s really common, but nobody outside the crocodile research community was aware of it.”

But, he says, “There’s no reason to think this behavior is new. In fact, there is some evidence that some extinct crocodilians were even more adapted to climb trees than the species alive today.”

The researchers believe the climbing is driven by two factors: thermoregulation and surveillance of the environment. Crocodiles took to the trees most frequently in areas where there were few places to bask on the ground, suggesting that the behavior is a means for regulating body temperature. And the reptiles were quick to fall or jump into the water if the researchers approached them. This skittish response implies they climb to gain a better perspective of potential threats and prey.

Christopher Gomez, an alligator hunting guide in Louisiana, says that though he’s never seen an alligator up a tree, the behavior doesn’t surprise him. “They’re really fast and maneuverable on land,” he says. “And knowing that they’re strong enough to take down large prey and drag them underwater, I’d say they’re strong enough to climb trees.”

Although crocodilians have an ancient lineage, dating back to the time of the dinosaurs, and are well known to humans, they’re still surprising us. In 2013, Dinets and his colleagues reported that alligators and crocodiles use sticks as lures to attract birds looking for nesting material. The reptiles lie in the water beneath bird colonies with sticks resting on their noses, ready to snap when a bird gets too close.

Comments

  1. Willie Mae Harding
    Gadsden, Alabama
    September 25, 3:58 pm

    Sorry to that one guy’s comment but Alabama has crocodiles too..salt water ones!

  2. MTAFI
    TANZANIA
    June 26, 5:57 am

    If python and lions can climb why cant they?

  3. Larry Tuohy
    New Orleans, LA
    March 11, 11:19 pm

    I read the Herpetology Notes article and it seemed a little shaky to me. I have seen alligators walk out on branches overhanging bayous but only when the tree trunk was slanted enough to allow them to walk up, rather than climb. In 18 years of studying the alligator population at the Barataria Preserve unit of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in Louisiana, I have seen this behavior exactly twice.

    In answer to an earlier comment, yes, there are crocodiles in the United States, although the population is restricted to Florida (the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live in the same habitat). I’m more interested in another comment that mentioned seeing fast alligators in Colorado. In the zoo, I presume?

    LT

  4. DifferentStripes
    United States
    March 6, 2:43 pm

    Did you know goats climb on cows? Yeah it looks weird to us, but really the goats are just instinctually climbing whatever they can. It’s not like they’re riding cows around for fun. The alligators aren’t climbing trees for fun either, they’re just using them as a substitute for what they’d normally use. Alligators are cold blooded and need sunlight to keep moving. The alligator is probably only there on a tree branch because it’s the only spot around in direct sunlight. It would normally find a rock or a sandy spot to get warm, but those aren’t around so up into the tree it goes!

  5. Jorge
    Silver spring-MD
    March 1, 8:59 pm

    Hey speaking of weirdness and natural species Like that Crocodile up the tree Is definitely weird in the weirdness Wields:-)

  6. Stacee Weirich
    Mesa, Az
    February 22, 12:03 pm

    Its ok I enlarged the snake? Just a large stick…

  7. luke moffatt
    Canada
    February 21, 10:14 am

    Anyone notice the python beside it in the picture?

  8. don bertolette
    United States
    February 21, 12:23 am

    Some time back, I was near enough to the island of Komodo to consider a visit…as I read of its inhabitants, they described the Komodo dragons, related to monitor lizards. It was said that they could outrun a man for 20 yards, swim underwater, and climb up into trees taller than they were (approaching alligator size). I went on to explore Bali…

  9. M. Marshall
    California
    February 20, 5:06 pm

    We really don’t give reptiles enough credit.

  10. SenorPescador Johnson
    El Salvador
    February 20, 4:01 pm

    not real funny to me, especially seeing big ones salt water style in Costa Rica in the early 80’s and in the jungle at night in Mexico and Guatemala, now I have to look for them along with fer de lances in the trees, lol, and BTW, Nat geo, u r corrupt you have Geico ads, they are a partner, warren buffet, get real

  11. Nigel Field
    Hervey Bay
    February 20, 3:52 pm

    Being indigenous I’m not supprised as all their
    cousins enjoy a birds eye veiw sun bake
    an delousin sorry to be a stick in the mud

  12. r.p.
    L.A. Colorado
    February 20, 3:44 pm

    I’ve seen fast gators here in Colorado. From a short observation in the everglades as a child, I realized they were very fast runners and quite agile back then. It wouldn’t surprise me that they could climb trees. Look up and down, ok? The snake is to the gator’s left, on the brambles(it’s a big one).

  13. George F Mohn
    Massachusetts
    February 20, 3:29 pm

    To jacqueline: Do you mean the large, sun-lit horizontal branch below and to the right of the alligator that looks like a snake? I had to zoom way in on the photo before it was clear it that was not a snake.

  14. weezer
    hurricane country
    February 18, 6:14 pm

    yes, there are crocs in the US, specifically south Florida… recently one was tracked on a 450-mile sojourn north along the Gulf Coast from the Everglades

  15. Tyler
    Shasta lake
    February 18, 4:39 pm

    That is scary just seeing them in the trees especcially if you are a hunter.

  16. Vamsi
    Va
    February 17, 5:23 am

    How long do they stay outside water ? Are they comfortable for long periods of time?

  17. Jenny
    United States
    February 16, 2:31 pm

    How do they “climb” the trees though? That’s my question!

  18. Dr hare krishna
    India
    February 16, 12:14 pm

    its great the croc just on the treee

  19. ashwinii thorunantha
    Don't know
    February 16, 7:56 am

    Woe , it so scary

  20. Jason Green
    Australia
    February 16, 3:09 am

    No offense. (Actually I hate that phrase) BUT anyone who grew up in a swamp could tell you that. They like a view, just like anyone else.

  21. Tom
    Netherlands
    February 16, 2:59 am

    Interesting, living in the netherlands, this kind of information does not come across often thus it is new and interesting (to me anyway). That you do not get paid for this is too bad, I can see this information saving a few people, thinking they are safe in higher places (e.g. trees) since they are not from these areas. Although I do think scientists/researchers should do science/research for the payment they’d receive, but for the sake of science/research itself, but, you should be compensated.

    However, klem’s reaction is unneeded. Obviously people in the Bayou would either know this or have heard of this thus his reaction and statement is null.

  22. Alaku Alumbugu
    Jos, Nigeria
    February 16, 1:24 am

    Thanks for the info, though it might not be new to others, it certainly is to a lot more.

  23. edk
    jakarta
    February 15, 9:50 pm

    No reasons to stop scientific… Evolution is move on

  24. Kristi Boissiere
    Antioch, CA
    February 15, 9:48 pm

    Although I didnt know this, how do u expect to get paid for just finding out what oyher people already knew?? My college professors definitely dont get paid for teaching me thing I already know so why should you??

  25. miguel teran
    uruapan, mich. mex.
    February 15, 7:32 pm

    Es interesante este comportamiento pero debe ser la misma evolucion que obliga a modificar sus acciones para cazar y sobrevivir. En la region de tierra caliente es muy comun ver reptiles grandes como la iguana trepar a los arboles y las palmeras con mucha habilidad y velocidad. Saludos.

  26. Dr.Golar
    central sulawesi
    February 15, 7:06 pm

    Its need a deep research……

  27. IAn Mc
    February 15, 4:41 pm

    Crocs in the US huh?

  28. Nan
    United States
    February 15, 3:58 pm

    I don’t see a snake in the water, Jacqueline, where is it? And awesome shot. I had no idea, wouldn’t have even considered alligators and crocs as climbers but hey, nothing really surprises me anymore. We find out daily we don’t know as much as we thought we did…LOL

  29. jacqueline
    milwaukee wisconsin
    February 14, 8:14 pm

    Am I the only one who is going to say what needs to be said?

    SCREW that alligator- Below him is a big reason why i will never go to the bayou!!!!!!!!!! SNAAAAAAAKEEEE!

  30. Vladimir Dinets
    United States
    February 14, 4:56 pm

    klem: I wish we (the authors of the paper) got paid for this, but so far, no such luck :-(

  31. klem
    Bayou
    February 14, 2:16 pm

    You think now that the scientists noticed we bayou folks just started looking up to see gators and crocs on branches? Geeze, how do I get paid to discover the already known?