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Crocodiles attack elephants

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Way back in November 2010 a remarkable photo appeared online, showing an adult Nile crocodile Crocodylus niloticus biting the trunk of an adult female African bush elephant Loxodonta africana (a plague upon those bloggers and others who identified the crocodylian as an… alligator. Duh). You’ve almost certainly seen the photo already: it was widely features in newspapers, magazines, blogs and such. My initial plan was to assume that everybody’s seen it, but that would be frustrating to those of you that haven’t so, whatever, here it is…

Photo: Martin Nyfeler/Barcroft Media.

Above we see the moment where the mother elephant is raising her trunk, the croc clamped around the end and still in the water. But the whole sequence of events was photographed too: the elephant actually pulled the croc right out of the water entirely, at which point the croc finally let go. The baby elephant tripped over the crocodile, but all three animals survived. In fact, both elephants were definitely ok since they were seen later in the day at the same river (the Luangwa River). This incident happened in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park; the photographer was Swiss tourist Martin Nyfeler. Here’s the whole sequence (taken from here)…

Remarkably, this isn’t the only time a crocodile has been photographed grabbing an elephant’s trunk. During October 2010, we got to see Johan Opperman’s photos of an incident photographed in Kruger National Park, this time featuring a baby Bush elephant. The baby was part of a group that waded across a small river, the surface totally covered in floating plants. As you can see, the crocodile grabbed the baby’s trunk. The other elephants rallied to the baby’s defence and the crocodile released its grip and disappeared. Here’s one of the several images…

Photo: Johan Opperman.

But it gets even better. Did you know that croc-attacks-elephant-trunk incidents had been FILMED? Not once, but at least twice. Yup, here’s number one…

If that isn’t viewable (I find it very hard to get videos to embed here), use this link: Crocodile attacks drinking elephant

I can’t pretend to have done any research on this specific incident at all and don’t know anything about it. It’s clearly genuine. The elephant that gets attacked appears to be another adult female. After recovering from the shock of “OMG there’s a crocodile on my trunk”, her reaction seems to involve aggression and retaliation – she seems to charge into the water in pursuit. And here’s number two… (the main incident happens at 1:35)…

Thanks much to RoryD for bringing the second bit of footage to my attention. Again, I don’t know anything about it.

Here’s the thing that immediately strikes me about these incidents. They’re been photographed or filmed at least four times. As you’ll know if you’re an expert on elephant and/or crocodile anecdotes, there are allusions in the literature to at least a few other cases of the same sort of thing. I recall one incident in particular where a crocodile attacked a juvenile elephant; an adult elephant grabbed the crocodile, pulled it on to the bank, trampled it, and threw its corpse into a tree. Anyone recall this as well?

Photo (c) Marlon Du Toit.

Anyway, if crocodiles have been seen to attack elephant trunks on at least four separate occasions, it seems safe to assume that it has actually happened on more occasions than this, since there must be occasions where (1) people didn’t film/photograph it, and (2) people weren’t there to see it happening. In the grand scheme of things, crocodile attacks on elephant trunks are probably pretty rare – and probably always have been, even if we think of a time when there were far more crocodiles and far more elephants, but… it does make you wonder. None of the attacks mentioned here resulted in the death of an elephant. Indeed, it may be that the crocodiles involved in these incidents made mistakes, thinking that the object that they were grabbing was attached to something far more manageable. However, note that a damaged trunk can prove fatal for an elephant: they can literally be disabled by trunk blockages and amputations, since an inability to forage, drink or breathe can result in declining health and eventual death. This at least makes it plausible that a crocodile could result in an adult elephant’s death. On the other hand, elephants can survive with mutilated trunks. The adjacent photo shows an individual photographed by Marlon Du Toit: it had a mutilated trunk and had learnt to squirt water into its mouth from its damaged trunk tip (more images and story here). Here’s another image of an individual with a damaged trunk (though, admittedly, it’s a baby).

One final thing. Having said that these incidents are probably very rare, I wonder if they might have happened on enough occasions that elephant behaviour has been modified accordingly. I mean: are there places with high crocodile densities that elephants deliberately avoid as drinking spots? Or are there places where elephants are especially careful, or where they do unusual things to ‘test’ for the initial presence of lurking crocs? And let us not forget the crocodylians and elephants of the geological past. Forgive me, I couldn’t help but knock up the following quick illustration…

Platybelodon and Euthecodon. Image by Darren Naish.

And everything you read here was inspired by a conversation I had with Mike P. Taylor and Matt Wedel. PS – note the skillful avoidance of Rudyard Kipling. I dislike the predictable references.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on elephants, see…

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. llewelly 8:33 am 02/4/2013

    What is going on with the baby elephant’s head in the first photo?

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  2. 2. Christopher Taylor 8:34 am 02/4/2013

    One can’t help thinking that there should be a Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake somewhere in that third photo.

    “Rash and inexperienced traveller, we will now seriously devote ourselves to a little high tension, because if we do not, it is my impression that yonder self-propelling man-of-war with the armour-plated upper deck’ (and by this, O Best Beloved, he meant the Crocodile), ‘will permanently vitiate your future career.”

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  3. 3. David Marjanović 8:46 am 02/4/2013

    What is going on with the baby elephant’s head in the first photo?

    We’re seeing it from behind, so we see the right ear almost edge-on. What looks like a very weird head in side view is the mother’s knee.

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  4. 4. Jerzy v. 3.0. 10:07 am 02/4/2013

    Yes, Kipling was right!

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  5. 5. Jerzy v. 3.0. 10:12 am 02/4/2013

    BTW, naturally, other crocodile attacks on elephants ended with hauling the croc out and, in one occassion, stuffing what remained of it into a tree hole. To answer the last question. ;)

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  6. 6. RoryD 11:23 am 02/4/2013

    I knew it would only be a matter of time before this awesomeness appeared on tetzoo!
    That’s not the only film of a crocodile attack on elephants. There are also two showing the same event when elephants are interrupted during courtship in the water.
    Long (higher quality) version here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjYTEFHD4gY
    Short version here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gafoNPdIEvk

    Incidentally, have you seen the videos of elephant and hippo interactions in the water? There is a hilarious one of a hippo repeatedly trying to tweak the elephants tail and taking a kick for its sins!-One wonders if this is simple curiosity or a sense of humour.

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  7. 7. naishd 11:29 am 02/4/2013

    Jerzy: are you referring to the question I posed in the article?

    Darren

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  8. 8. John Harshman 11:47 am 02/4/2013

    If you want to avoid Kipling, one must assume that you’ve never kippled. I await photos of dingos chasing kangaroos and of South American hedgehogs.

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  9. 9. naishd 12:08 pm 02/4/2013

    RoryD (comment 6) – thanks! That bit of footage came up during a web search but I was unable to find a viewable version. Wow, so crocs have been filmed biting elephant trunks at least twice. Will add a comment to main text…

    Darren

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  10. 10. BrianL 1:14 pm 02/4/2013

    Surely this MUST have happened more often during prehistoric times, when both proboscideans and crocodiles were far more numerous?
    I’d imagine large Saltwater Crocodiles must have been rather dangerous for dwarf *Stegodon*.
    Are any other dwarf elephants known to have coexisted with crocodiles?

    If we’re talking about proboscideans in general, the small, basal types would probably have fallen prey to crocodiles on a fairly regular basis too.

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  11. 11. Himmapaan 2:07 pm 02/4/2013

    Perhaps the Kipling reference would have been more *apt* than predictable. Given that such instances have surely occurred many times, it’s interesting (to me, at least) to wonder whether Kipling might himself have witnessed such an event, consequently inspiring his story of ‘The Elephant’s Child’.
    And given that one of your contacts (if rather peripheral) has recently illustrated the book, the omission is really quite a slight. ;) :P

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  12. 12. Jurassosaurus 3:04 pm 02/4/2013

    Given how often this has been viewed by people on camera and anecdotally I suspect that much like with lions, crocodiles probably consider elephants to be on the menu too, even if the chances of taking one down are pretty low. It’s hard to imagine all of these being cases of mistaken identity. Especially when the entire animal is wading in the water. It’s not like crocodiles are blind. Plus with their super-sensitive ISOs they should be well aware of the size of the prey they are about to tackle.

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  13. 13. Heteromeles 3:58 pm 02/4/2013

    Someone should put a warning on those books that Kipling is dangerously Lamarckian, and far too persistent in memory.

    But those pictures rather beg the question–just how fast do elephants’ trunks heal, anyway? Crocs can’t be the only thing they get into trouble with. Do they heal fast?

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  14. 14. BizarreZooJay 4:18 pm 02/4/2013

    Interesting…sort of an All Yesterday’s approach with the Platybelodon and crocodilian drawing. Good job!

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  15. 15. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:13 pm 02/4/2013

    Very poor video of a very interesting buffalo – croc incident:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wf5TEjx_0Q8&list=UUgPYOLbcgxSBCAmlaihQyMg

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  16. 16. rugeirn 6:41 pm 02/4/2013

    I’m so glad we didn’t forget about that memorable moment on the great gray-green greasy Limpopo. Really, it’s one of my favorite stories.

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  17. 17. rugeirn 6:43 pm 02/4/2013

    I suppose it’s possible that Kipling saw an incident like this, but I would think it more likely that he heard about such an incident from someone else. After all, the odds are much better on that. Stories travel, and the best ones never stop.

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  18. 18. Himmapaan 8:15 pm 02/4/2013

    Since I have Dr. Naish’s blessing to share this illustration: http://fav.me/d5omvgu

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  19. 19. vdinets 10:09 pm 02/4/2013

    All: I recently had a zoological paper accepted (in a well-respected journal) that lists Kipling’s The Jungle Books as a reference, so now it’s officially OK to discuss his stories as scientific sources ;-)

    Jurassosaurus: It’s difficult to say for sure, but my impression has always been that crocs normally don’t get predatorial with things larger than themselves. So I would rather suspect cases of mistaken identity… and those waterholes tend to have muddy water.

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  20. 20. Jurassosaurus 10:40 pm 02/4/2013

    @Vdinets – That the attacks are still fairly rare would still validate the assumption that crocs rarely prey on things larger than themselves, but the recent discovery that croc ISOs are more sensitive than human fingers tells me that on these occasions the crocs probably know what they are getting themselves into (especially in the video from comment #6).

    It’s too bad there isn’t a way to measure hubris in other animals. :)

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  21. 21. David Marjanović 9:54 am 02/5/2013

    on these occasions the crocs probably know what they are getting themselves into

    You know, little dogs at least have an evolutionary excuse for believing they’re full-grown wolves.

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  22. 22. Heteromeles 1:15 pm 02/5/2013

    Thanks for the note on crocodilian ISOs. Didn’t know about them.

    Is there any evidence (for or against) that croc ISOs are involved in passive electroperception?

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  23. 23. RoryD 5:36 pm 02/5/2013

    Thanks Darren! I’m glad to have helped and contributed to the discussion.

    @Jerzy, That’s crazy! If I was a Nile crocodile, I’d pick on an elephant over a buffalo any day.

    I wonder if the trunk is an exaggerated stimulus to crocodiles, and they just can’t resist going for a big, wriggly thing despite common sense dictating that it’s attached to something unachievable.

    Or (and I’ve just thought of this), if crocodiles know they can bring down a baby elephant (which must happen), why not test an adult? And if those damaged trunks really were from croc attacks, then it might be worth getting a bit of ‘elephant sausage’ while you’re there since it is a muscular organ.

    I can imagine that a crocodile attack could be directly fatal to an elephant ‘snorkeling’ in deep water, as with the first attack in the video I linked to. Bear in mind the croc already had plenty of time to assess the elephant after the first attack but still chose to have another go.

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  24. 24. RaptorX 9:21 pm 02/5/2013

    Very interesting post concerning these encounters, although I personally think that the crocs may be mistaking the trunk of the elephants as another object. Maybe not a prey item, but perhaps they see the elephants as being rivals or threats. For example, they may mistake the trunk as being the tail or limb of another crocodile. The splashing and social behaviors that elephants tend to do in the water while drinking may also be mistaken for a rival animal, as crocodilian courtship and territorial displays are often noisy and accompanied by loud head-splashing. I also think it has been shown that crocodilians have poor eyesight in water, so certainly it’s possible that they would mistake an elephant trunk for another croc.

    Of course, this is all just a theory on my part. Don’t know if anything credible will come from it.

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  25. 25. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:27 am 02/6/2013

    I also think crocodile mistaken the elephant trunk for some independent smaller prey.

    I wonder how crocodile identifies fish underwater. Sense of sight is often useless: water in streams etc is commonly so muddy that the crocodile cannot even see the tip of its nose. Maybe, besides the noise, crocodiles can sense water currents produced by fish using their mouths, much like seals use their whiskers?

    I also wonder if crocs hang out near elephants or similar large animals to catch fish flushed by them?

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  26. 26. David Marjanović 8:56 am 02/6/2013

    I wonder how crocodile identifies fish underwater. Sense of sight is often useless: water in streams etc is commonly so muddy that the crocodile cannot even see the tip of its nose. Maybe, besides the noise, crocodiles can sense water currents produced by fish using their mouths, much like seals use their whiskers?

    The abovementioned “ISOs” are pressure sensors that allow crocs to find prey even in complete darkness. Was published in Nature several years ago. Incidentally, the ISOs leave traces on the skull, and those traces are absent in Sebecus.

    I also wonder if crocs hang out near elephants or similar large animals to catch fish flushed by them?

    Could be…

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  27. 27. SRPlant 12:24 pm 02/6/2013

    Yes, those big Sharptooth catfish are eel-like, trunk-like…

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  28. 28. leecris 11:34 pm 02/16/2013

    This type of injury to an elephant’s trunk is rare but more common than people may have realized before the widespread use of video cameras. Several live streaming waterhole cameras from Mpumalanga and Kza Zulu Natal, South Africa, and eastern Botswana have been online for the past five years at http://www.africam.com/wildlife/index.php and http://lite.wildearth.tv/ and probably other sites as well. I have seen two different elephants with trunks that appeared to have been bitten off by a crocodile. One had a trunk that extended perhaps 50 cm beyond her mouth. Her family helped her feed by pulling branches down within reach.

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  29. 29. Dartian 4:33 am 03/2/2013

    leecris:
    trunks that appeared to have been bitten off by a crocodile

    Actually, it’s unfortunately far more likely that those trunks have been amputated by getting caught in poachers’ wire snares. That’s a widespread and serious problem in elephant conservation.

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  30. 30. BorisB 9:22 pm 03/5/2013

    I can imagine that these rare events of crocodiles attacking elephants are occasionally successful. I am not an expert on elephant physiology, but I assume while elephants are in the water, their trunk is (very) important for breathing. If an elephant goes deep enough into a river and a crocodile can get a good grip on the trunk, I think, it might be able to drown/asphyxiate the elephant (as crocodiles do more often with their prey). Especially with smaller elephants this is likely to be successful.

    Additionally, if a crocodile manages to kill an elephant, I imagine this to be the crocodile equivalent to a feast. (However, we should keep in mind that there is also a greater risk involved when attacking an elephant compared to, lets say, an impala.)

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  31. 31. Dartian 1:26 pm 03/6/2013

    Boris:
    while elephants are in the water, their trunk is (very) important for breathing

    Elephants also breathe through their mouths, though, so the crocodile would need to get most of the elephant’s head submerged.

    General comment, not directed at anyone in particular: I get the impression that many people rather underestimate elephant trunks. They are remarkable structures. They contain no bone, but they’re full of muscles and covered with a thick skin. Even a large crocodile would have real trouble with trying to bite one off.

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  32. 32. BorisB 4:45 pm 03/6/2013

    Dartian;
    That is why I assume it would only work if the elephant is deep enough in the water (swimming). Pulling the trunk down will not only stop them from breathing through their trunk, but might also shut the mouth. Or at least that is how I imagine it.

    Link to this

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