Crocodiles sit atop the food chain as fearsome apex predators in their environments. Their armored bodies and powerful jaws strike terror in prey and humans alike. But while they may rule their swampy domains, crocodiles aren’t invincible.

Several bold predators will occasionaly target these reptilian beasts as prey when the opportunity arises or desperate times call for desperate measures. So what eats a crocodile? Read on to learn about crocodilian predators and the factors that embolden them to hunt such formidable foes.

Nile Crocodiles

Lions

As apex predators of the African savannah, lions sometimes prey on Nile crocodiles. Though crocodiles are ferocious defenders, lions are powerful enough to overpower them. Working in groups, lions can flip a crocodile over onto its back, exposing its vulnerable underside.

Once in this position, the crocodile is unable to right itself, allowing the lions to inflict lethal wounds. However, encounters between lions and Nile crocodiles are rare, as the two species generally avoid overlapping territories.

Leopards

Leopards are stealthy predators that occasionally attack Nile crocodiles. With tremendous agility and dexterity, leopards can leap onto a crocodile’s back and deliver a death blow to the base of the skull. However, crocodiles pose a considerable danger even to leopards.

If the initial pounce does not secure a quick kill, the crocodile may roll over and catch the leopard in its vice-like jaws. Leopards will generally only attack younger crocodiles that they can easily overpower.

Hyenas

As opportunistic scavengers, spotted hyenas and striped hyenas will feed on crocodile carcasses. They use their powerful jaws to crack open crocodile eggs and eat the young. However, hyenas rarely attack live adult crocodiles.

There are a few reported instances of hyenas harassing basking crocodiles on land and even tentatively biting tails and feet. But a surprise attack from the water would almost certainly end badly for the hyenas.

Large Python Snakes

Africa’s largest pythons, including rock pythons, African pythons, and Southern African pythons occasionally prey on Nile crocodiles. These snakes ambush crocodiles from underwater or from overhanging branches. They coil their bodies around the crocodile and constrict to suffocate it.

Smaller crocodiles are more vulnerable to large constricting snakes. There are even some photos documenting epic battles between 20+ foot pythons and crocodiles over 10 feet long. While both species occasionally eat each other, these conflicts are relatively uncommon in the wild.

American Alligators

Panthers

The American alligator has few natural predators, but one of its most formidable foes is the Florida panther. As ambush predators, panthers will wait patiently near the water’s edge for an opportunity to attack.

With lightning speed and razor sharp claws, a panther can take down a juvenile or smaller adult alligator. However, panthers rarely go after full-grown alligators due to the risk of injury from their powerful jaws and thrashing tails.

According to research from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, panthers have been documented preying on alligators up to 5 feet long.

Bears

American black bears and the smaller Florida black bear are also known to prey on alligators, particularly younger ones. Bears have incredible strength to flip over an alligator and get access to its vulnerable belly.

Their powerful jaws and claws can inflict lethal wounds on an alligator’s underside. Bears may also scavenge dead alligators. A study published in the journal Southeastern Naturalist documented evidence of black bears preying on alligators in Florida, including carcasses with belly wounds and flipped over alligator nests after bear activity.

Alligator Snapping Turtles

The alligator snapping turtle is aptly named for its powerful jaws and dinosaur-like appearance. As ambush predators, they will lay still on the river bottom with mouths agape to lure in prey. Despite their cumbersome look, they can strike with amazing speed.

Alligator snappers occasionally eat young alligators that come within range. Their sturdy shells and thick skin around their necks allow them to withstand an alligator’s bite. According to the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, alligator snappers have been found consuming baby alligators in the wild.

Factors Leading Predators to Hunt Crocodilians

Desperate Hunger

When predators are extremely hungry and struggling to find prey, they may take more risks to attack dangerous quarry like crocodilians. Lions, hyenas, and wild dogs that are starving have been known to go after young or smaller crocodilians in desperate attempts to find a meal. Though risky, taking down a crocodilian can provide much-needed sustenance for a starving carnivore.

According to a National Geographic report, observers witnessed lions attacking Nile crocodiles out of desperation during a drought in Kenya.

Territorial Defense

Predators like big cats may attack crocodilians that wander into their territories. Lions are fiercely defensive of their turf, and there are instances of lions ganging up on solitary crocodiles that encroached on their habitat.

There is also evidence that jaguars and leopards have attacked caimans and crocodiles in efforts to scare them away. These big cats likely don’t see crocodilians as prey, but rather as threats or competitors in their terrain that need to be driven out or killed in self-defense.

Opportunistic Scavenging

While most predators won’t actively hunt mature crocodilians, they will readily feast on crocodilian carcasses if given the chance. Species like lions, African wild dogs, hyenas, and raptors have all been documented scavenging on dead crocodilians.

Smaller predators like jackals may also nip at unattended crocodile hatchlings or eggs. Opportunistic scavenging allows these predators to benefit from the remains of crocodilians without the risks of attacking healthy adults. According to crocodile experts, crocodilian carcasses often attract an array of hungry scavengers.

Predation on Juveniles and Eggs

Birds of Prey

Various birds of prey are known to feed on juvenile crocodiles and their eggs. Eagles, hawks, storks, herons, and even vultures have been observed attacking crocodile nests and young hatchlings. Their powerful beaks and sharp talons allow them to crack open reptile eggs with ease.

According to a 1986 study, herons were responsible for up to 70% of American alligator nest failures in Florida due to egg predation.

Aerial predators like eagles and hawks may also grab small or weak juvenile crocodiles from the water. A 1989 paper documented 28 attempts by African fish eagles to take Nile crocodile hatchlings, of which 10 were successful.

Though larger crocodilians are safe from birds, their eggs and babies remain vulnerable.

Small Mammals

Various mammalian mesopredators are known for their raids on crocodile nests. These include animals like raccoons, foxes, coatis, rats, and others. A 1990 study in Costa Rica found that coatis and raccoons were the primary nest predators of American crocodiles, with over 50% nest mortality attributed to them.

These quick and nimble mammals are able to dig up reptile eggs and make away with them. Some species like coatis even specialize in cracking eggs open. Their flexible paws and teeth are adapted tools for gaining access to egg contents.

Though their individual impacts may be small, collectively these nest raiders take a heavy cumulative toll on baby crocodilian survival.

Fish

As aquatic egg-layers, crocodilians face predatory pressures from fish as well. Various fish species are attracted to the proteins and nutrients offered by crocodile eggs. These include catfish, carp, tilapia, piranha, and other omnivorous fish.

Fish egg predation has especially been noted in species that build floating vegetation nests, like Morelet’s crocodile in Mexico. The eggs rest right at water level and are readily visible and accessible.

According to a 2010 report, seasonal flooding enabled predatory fish to take as much as 35% of Morelet’s crocodile eggs during the wet period!

Fish also opportunistically attack juvenile crocodiles in certain contexts. Several accounts of piranha feeding frenzies wounding or killing young caimans exist. But fish are generally not the foremost threat that baby crocodilians face in their early life stage.

Conclusion

While formidable predators in their own right, crocodilians occasionally fall prey to bolder alpha predators when circumstances allow. However, these events remain relatively rare. With their armored hides, powerful jaws, large size and acute senses, crocodiles, alligators, caimans and gharials have evolved to sit confidently atop aquatic and riparian food chains as kings of their domains, even as the occasional challenger comes along.

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