A recent research report in Herpetology Notes [V7: 3-7 (2013)] reveals that the rumors are true. Sometimes crocodiles climb trees.
Although arboreality in extinct crocodilians is frequently suggested, the climbing abilities have never been discussed in any detail in scientific literature. We present an overview of on climbing in extant crocodilians, as well as original observations on four species data suggest that climbing behaviour is common among crocodilians and might have multiple some extant crocodilians are capable of climbing arboreal vegetation despite lacking any for arboreality must be taken into account by paleontologists trying to elucidate behavioural fossil taxa.
Sure, it’s mostly juveniles that do this and they don’t climb very high, but crocodiles (and relations) are normally considered semi-aquatic, not much for heights. The authors cite reports worldwide of crocodilians (includes alligators) resting in trees, even climbing into the crown. It’s not that surprising since other lizards do this. Size matters though, the big ones will not be able to haul their bulk up a tree or be supported by thin branches. The size limit seems to be about 1.5 meters.
They have also been known to be good at climbing steep slopes and chain link fences. When threatened, they will fall into the water below their perch. The report includes details of observations from Australian freshwater crocodile, American alligator and the Central African slender-snouted crocodile, but they note that it seems common so likely appears in other species.
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