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Stephanie Drumheller-Horton, professor of paleontology at the University of Tennessee, explains the death roll, a maneuver crocodiles make to turn their prey into edible-size bites.



ANDREA SCHNEIBEL: Welcome to Science Minute, a research audiocast by the University of Tennessee. I’m Andrea Schneibel.

You’ve seen it in movies and YouTube videos. The infamous death roll, that terrifying maneuver crocodiles make to dismember prey into smaller bites of food. It’s something nightmares are made of. But how many species of crocodiles and alligators actually do that?

STEPHANIE DRUMHELLER-HORTON: I partnered up with the University of Florida and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm to look into this.

SCHNEIBEL: That’s Stephanie Drumheller-Horton, a paleontologist at the University of Tennessee.

DRUMHELLER-HORTON: We actually surveyed death-roll behavior in all 25 currently recognized species of crocodilian and all of them, except one, actually would do this under experimental conditions.

SCHNEIBEL: Her team also found that eating is not the only reason why crocodiles and alligators use the death roll.

DRUMHELLER-HORTON: Crocodiles and alligators and their relatives will actually fight over territory, over resources, access to mates. So they’ll actually death roll during these events as well, not just during feeding. They can get pretty violent during these fights.

SCHNEIBEL: So, have these species always performed this motion?

DRUMHELLER-HORTON: You have to remember, there’s an idea that crocs are these living fossils that are unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. That’s just not true. There have actually been many odd, sort of spin-offs in the family tree.

With this research, we strongly suspect that any of the croc relatives who had a similar body plan, a similar body shape, they were probably able to do this.

SCHNEIBEL: Thanks for listening to Science Minute. For the University of Tennessee, I’m Andrea Schneibel.

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