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    Crocodiles and Alligators Can Climb Trees

    Written by

    Jason Koebler

    Staff Writer

    An American alligator in Mississippi. Image: Kristine Gingras/Herpetology Notes

    Next time you’re in gator country, watch where you step, and also make sure you look up: Scientists have observed alligators climbing trees.

    Crocodilians are generally considered swamp dwellers who, if they head out of the water, tend to stick very close to the ground. That’s not always the case, however. Researchers at the University of Tennessee have found four different species of crocodile, including the American alligator, that have the ability and propensity to climb trees, even if they haven’t morphologically evolved to do so. They're also able to use tools

    Before the University of Tennessee report, published in Herpetology Notes, “Can crocodiles climb trees?” was more the kind of thing you typed into Yahoo Answers when you were super high. Beyond rumors of them climbing trees passed around Everglades-dwelling gator hunters and the like, the only real mention of their ability to do so was mentioned back in 1972, when one scientist wrote that baby crocodiles “can climb into bushes, up trees, and even hang on reeds like chameleons.”

    According to lead author Vladimir Dinets, the Australian freshwater crocodile, the Nile crocodile, the American crocodile (found generally in Central and South America), and the American alligator all climb trees. In Colombia, for instance, juvenile crocs can reach heights of nearly 30 feet. 

    “Despite lacking any morphological adaptations for climbing trees, crocodilians are capable of entering arboreal environments within the limits of their locomotory abilities, and in some cases might spend considerable time high above ground,” he writes.

    Image: Herpetology Notes

    In most cases, crocodiles are forced to simply walk along wide, slanted branches, which certifiably not as badass as being able to climb up vertically. Some crocs, however, are able to do a limited amount of vertical climbing, as long as they are still fairly young. Once crocodiles reach full maturity, they're apparently too heavy to shimmy up vertically. 

    “Juvenile crocodilians …also climb on relatively thin, vertical branches that have to be gripped from the sides, or even across multiple branches using them as a ladder and lifting the body vertically,” Dinets writes. “The ability to climb vertically (as long as footholds are available) is a measure of crocodilians’ spectacular agility on land and their ability to pull the body along an angled surface.”

    Unfortunately for those already working on a sequel to the 1980 classic Alligator, they don’t seem to do it in order to attack prey from above. Dinets hypothesizes that crocs primarily climb trees in areas where there aren’t a lot of basking sites. He thinks they can potentially better regulate their body temperature in a tree rather than on the ground. He also suggests that crocodiles may also be using the higher vantage point to surveil the area for prey and threats, which is a little more exciting. He notes that, because they often climb trees at night, the surveillance reasoning might be closer to the truth.

    “One key role of arboreal basking is, in fact, site surveillance and increased individual security through longer distance observation of potential threats from a vantage point where escape is as easy as falling off a log,” he writes. “A secondary benefit may be increased detectability of prey under such conditions.”

    Just hope you’re not the prey.