What’s worse than snakes on a plane or sharks in a tornado? Real-life crocodiles in trees. Scientists recently observed four species of crocodile climbing trees and lounging on the branches.

Although people around the world have observed and photographed the arboreal abilities of many types of crocodile and alligator, herpetologists hadn’t studied the behavior much. Now, recent research documented tree-climbing Australian freshwater crocodiles, American crocodiles, Central African slender-snouted crocodiles and Nile crocodiles. The paper also presented anecdotal reports of many other croc species taking to the trees.

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The crocs weren’t just clambering onto easily reached low branches. The animals could climb vertical trunks. Some climbed all the way to the trees’ crown.

Most of the tree-borne crocs were young and still relatively small. Most of the arboreal crocs were two meters (6.5 feet) or less in length. The animals may have been climbing the trees to bask in the sun, since the areas where the animals were observed in trees often lacked other suitable sun bathing locations, noted the study’s authors.

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The crocs may also have used their perches to observe their surroundings and watch for threats. The animals often picked branches hanging over bodies of water. When startled, the young crocs would plunge into the water. Green iguanas use a similar behavior. A few years ago, while rafting in iguana territory in eastern Honduras, I recall that a loud splash was often the only clue that an iguana had been nearby.

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The slender-snouted crocodile of central Africa proved particularly adept at arboreal acrobatics. The reptiles roosted on branches both night and day. One specimen climbed though a tangle of branches to rest on a branch five meters from the river bank and four meters above the water.

The study “Climbing behavior in extant crocodilians” was published in Herpetology Notes. Vladimir Dinets of the University of Tennessee led the study.

Photo: An American alligator perches on a tree branch in Pearl River Delta, Mississippi. Credit: Kristine Gingras, courtesy of University of Tennessee