Crocodiles vs. elephants

November 18, 2014

I’ve been reading The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats (Wood 1982) again. Here’s what he says on pages 98-99 about the strength of crocodiles, and what happens when they bite off more than they can chew.

The strength of the crocodile is quite appalling. Deraniyalga (1939) mentions a crocodile in N. Australia which seized and dragged into the river a magnificent 1 tonne Suffolk stallion which had recently been imported from England, despite the fact that this breed of horse can exert a pull of more than 2 tonnes, and there is at least one record of a full-grown black rhinoceros losing a tug-of-war with a big crocodile. Sometimes, however, even crocodiles over-estimate their strength. One day in the 1860s a hunter named Lesley was a witness when a saurian seized the hind-leg of a large bull African elephant while it was bathing in a river in Natal. The crocodile was promptly dragged up the bank by the enraged tusker and then squashed flat by one of its companions who had hurried to the rescue. The victorious elephant then picked up the bloody carcase with its trunk and lodged it in the fork of a nearby tree (Stokes, 1953). Oswell (1894) says he twice found the skeletons of crocodiles 15 ft 4.6 m up in trees by the river’s bank where they had been thrown by angry elephants. On another occasion a surprised crocodile suddenly found itself dangling 15 ft 4.6 m in mid-air when it foolishly seized a drinking giraffe by the head.

The idea of elephants lodging crocodile corpses up in trees seems too bizarre to be true, but seeing it independently attested by two witnesses makes me more ready to accept it. There’s plenty of Internet chatter about this happening, but I’ve not been able to find photos — or better yet, video — proving that it happens.


  • Deraniyalga, P. 1939. The tetrapod reptiles of Ceylon, vol. 1: Testudinates and crocodilians. Colombo Nat. Mus., Ceylon.
  • Oswell, W. Cotton. 1894. South Africa fifty years ago. Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes (Big Game Shooting), London.
  • Stokes, C. W. 1953. Sanctuary. Cape Town.
  • Wood, Gerald L. 1982. The Guinness Book of Animals Facts & Feats (3rd edition). Guinness Superlatives Ltd., Enfield, Middlesex. 252 pp.

21 Responses to “Crocodiles vs. elephants”

  1. palaeosam Says:

    Was the giraffe ok after the head grabbing incident? That much croc weight pulling on its head can’t have been easy. My money would be on the croc in that encounter but, if not, it could call into (further) question the notion of sauropod head grabbing theropods. A topic that was extensively discussed on the DML a few years back.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    I assume the answer is to be found in Oswell 1894, but I have never seen that book. (Aside: Amazon has Big Game Shooting in South Africa Fifty Years Ago by W. Cotton Oswald, which I assume is the same book. Outrageously, Read Books Ltd. claims copyright on this book, as you can see from the Kindle preview. How they get away with this, I can’t imagine.)

    But I can only assume that the giraffe incident involved a much smaller crocodile. For a long-necked animal to lift a heavy weight at the head, with all the mechanical advantage against it, is very difficult. For that reason, although I love this classic Luis Rey artwork, I think it’s pretty unlikely ever to have happened.

  3. ncmncm Says:

    Clearly a cultural phenomenon, if true.

    I marvel at naturalists who insist that no such thing as culture can exist in “lower orders”, or that the evidence isn’t conclusive yet, or that what looks like culture in them is fundamentally different from what humans do.

    Recently I encountered a report from computational anthropologists who have a formula that determines how many inventions a society can maintain, depending only on population size. (Imagine the population needed to support such a thing as computational anthropology.) It is easy to see how language would expand the boundaries of a population from one band to a (much larger) tribe, enabling them to maintain simultaneously such brilliant inventions as the bow and arrow, clothing, and the fire drill.

    One can’t expect the practice of croc treeing to expand beyond the one herd without language, no matter how awesome it is. Some einsteinian elephant treed that first croc. Continued treeing depends not only on young elephants seeing the practice, but on enough other elephants according the treer increased social status for the performance.

    But do the other crocs learn anything from it? “Don’t bite him! Do you want to end up like Cornelius up there?” Physical culture can fill in for language, to some degree.

  4. Lars Dietz Says:

    “South Africa fifty years ago” is a chapter of a book called “Big Game Shooting”, which is online here. I’ve linked to the page where the incident is described. The story about the giraffe isn’t there, so it must come from another source. Note that he didn’t actually see that the elephant tossed the crocodile in the tree, but he found it there and was told that this is how it got there.

  5. Matt Wedel Says:

    Some einsteinian elephant treed that first croc. Continued treeing depends not only on young elephants seeing the practice, but on enough other elephants according the treer increased social status for the performance.

    How can you be so certain? Given that a lot of mammals cache stuff in trees, it seems equally plausible to me that the elephants here are following an instinctive “stick that dead bastard in a tree” routine, even if caching stuff in trees is not something that elephants typically do. At least, that stands as an alternative hypothesis that should be tested alongside cultural transmission (and probably several other hypotheses that neither of us has thought of) before we a priori decide in favor of culture.

  6. Mark Hallett Says:

    This makes those art pieces you see on the Web of sauropods dragging naughty theropods around somewhat credible. I think it’s also a reason why sauropods were pretty careful, if they relied on freestanding fresh water, about how they approached a waterhole. Minimizing the time they spent drinking would have been selectively advantageous, and leans in the direction of a chelononian-like tongue pump, since they couldn’t suck like mammals and constantly tossing back water like some birds might have been hard on head-neck vascular dynamics.

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    “This makes those art pieces you see on the Web of sauropods dragging naughty theropods around somewhat credible.”

    Wait — there are art pieces of sauropods dragging theropods around? Awesome! Links, or it didn’t happen.

  8. Sean Says:

    Now you’ve got me thinking about Deinosuchus. 15m hadrosaurs, 12m stem alligatorids.

  9. TEO Says:

    How come nobody asks Darren? He’s supposed to be the go-to man for this kind of questions…

  10. eotyrannus Says:

    Hello! Like Mike and other people here, I’ve read about the ‘elephant throws crocs into tree’ thing (and have mentioned it at Tet Zoo), but I’ve never seen any pictures – I don’t know if any exist. I always assumed that the eventual location of the corpse was the result of the body being thrown forwards and upwards by the enraged elephant.

  11. ncmncm Says:

    What kind of “stuff” could an elephant have, to cache in a tree? (Maybe you were thinking of leopards?) That this is not a familiar behavior, despite elephants’ common proximity to crocodiles, makes it hard to credit as instinctive and genetically determined.

    I wonder how that other croc planned to swallow the giraffe after it got it.

  12. Matt Wedel Says:

    You seem to have missed the part of my comment where I acknowledged that, “caching stuff in trees is not something that elephants typically do”.

    this is not a familiar behavior

    True, but so what? We’ve been watching elephants for as long as we’ve been sentient, and we’re still cataloging new behaviors. The point was not that caching was more likely than your scenario, but that alternatives existed at all, so you can’t just blithely assume cultural transmission without doing some testing. And actually, Darren has hinted toward a truly null hypothesis here: elephants sometimes swing or throw small irritating animals into the air (hard to argue with, given the photo at the end of this post), and in some subset of those cases, there is a tree in the way in which the animal can become lodged. That doesn’t require either some held-over caching instinct from the depths of mammalian history or cultural transmission, only that elephants occasionally throw things and that their habitat include trees.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    There’s a serious dearth of easily available literature out there on what elephants exactly do when they decide to fight back against another animal. Sure, almost every account involves the animal “throwing their weight around”, but how is another matter. In addition to stomping and goring, I have heard reports of elephants wrapping people in their trunk and crushing them, or putting them in their mouth and pulping them like a grapefruit. There’s also that variability in intraspecific combat when some elephants lose a tusk. Young male elephants have also been known to kill (and rape) rhinoceroses when in musth, so they must have some way of actually killing a rhino (even if that isn’t normal behavior, these individuals tend to be tramautized poaching orphans).

  14. Mark Robinson Says:

    Elephants throwing crocodiles around which then somehow get stuck in a tree isn’t a null hypothesis. Oh, no – that’s the magical crocodile-catching tree hypothesis.

    The truly-ruly null hypothesis is elephants stomping crocs on the ground and then a tree sprouts underneath the dead croc and hoists it into the air (eventually). I bet if Oswell had bothered to climb up those trees and examine the croc carcasses he would’ve found nothing but skin and bones.

  15. kattato garu Says:

    I haven’t got an elephant treeing a croc, but SVPOW itself has relevant archive pictures. Are memories so short?

  16. Mike Taylor Says:

    No, our memories are not that short — which is why Matt drew attention to that picture of that post just four comment ago.

  17. Hey everybody, I didn’t see this posted here so I thought I’d deposit it accordingly. It’s a series of images which depict a pretty darn big lookin croc biting the trunk of what appears to be a big female elephant. It doesn’t appear that the elephant is able to lift up the croc to tree height or throw it there, but she does drag it out of the water and stomp/trip on it. Obviously a smaller croc is another story…

    Side note: check out the huge inflation of her forehead in the pic where the croc is getting pulled vertically out of the water! Presumably she’s trying to exhale through her clamped trunk and blowin her noggin up!

    Also it think it’s worth considering elephants combative feats with other species, such as rhinos and hippos, which elephants mess up with some regularity. Here’s a clip showing photographs of an angry bull elephant rolling a hippo like a big football:

    Still, on trunk strength alone I’m doubtful a bull elephant can toss a bull croc fully 15 feet in the air. I think it might be more likely that they would shovel them up with their tusks and trunk, somewhat like a fork-lift and toss them that way. They certainly move some big damn logs that way.

    Also, I have personally observed one of the female Asian elephants at the Santa Barbara Zoo picking up (to about a meter off the ground) and then dropping a large log (maybe 3ish meters? long x .6ish meters in diameter) in her enclosure. She was just sorta playing with it, but I can’t remember if she ever got it fully up off the ground, or if she was picking up just one end and dropping that. Anyway, it impressed me. It was a solid looking log and made a deep hearty THUNK when it was dropped on the dirt/concrete floor of her exhibit.

    If you consider that the back legs of sauropods were leveraged against their massive tails and expansive pelvises/rib cage, and their forelimbs were strung to their long scapula, which was in turn tied into the bundle of musculature that supported their insane necks, the legs themselves seem almost tiny in comparison to the muscle-wrapped levers that would’ve worked them back and forth. And when the feet were anchored that whole neck would’ve worked as a lever on the tail and vice versa. To me it seems like these animals would’ve been INANELY strong, whether charging through mud, whipping their necks or tails, or pushing against trees or each other.

    and with that i leave you with footage of a giraffe running, please note how the movement of the neck translates through the entire body, powering the gallop. Boom. Wiggly levers.

  18. Mike Taylor Says:

    To me it seems like these animals would’ve been INANELY strong

    I really, really hope that’s a typo :-)

  19. brian engh Says:

    Why would that be a typo? Inane = stupid silly.
    To me it seems like these animals would’ve been stupidly strong. Ridiculously ripped. Preposterously powerful. And I suspect if i were to witness it I might well be struck dumb.

    Also, in an unrelated discussion with my lady (we both really like elephants) she started reading me stats about elephant trunk strength from a website, to which I said “Hey I gotta post that on SVPOW!”… Unfortunately this doesn’t cite sources, but it’s a start. It claims they can lift up to about 750 lbs with their trunk.

  20. Mike Taylor Says:

    Stupidly strong. Ridiculously ripped. Preposterously powerful. Yes, all of those I would have gone for. But “inane” connotes a different kind of stupidity — a bland, fatuous, vacuous kind of stupidity — which I would not have applied to sauropods. Oh well.

    Thanks for the elephant-trunk link.

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