Alligators Sing to Set Up Singles Clubs? (With Video)

Matt Kaplan
for National Geographic News
October 20, 2009

Whatever you do, don't call it crocodile rock (and for that, Elton John should be grateful).


After all, the thunderous, seemingly tone-deaf chorus in the above video is "sung" by a species of alligator, the crocodiles' stout-headed cousin.

Chinese alligators are among the most vocal crocodilians, and now researchers think they've figured out why: the reptiles burst into song to form singles clubs.

That means the off-key groupings are no laughing matter, considering that there are fewer than 150 wild Chinese alligators alive today, according to the study.

(Related: "Chinese Alligators Reintroduced from U.S. Are Breeding on Yangtze River Island.")

Alligators Sing "Like Thunder"

Birds and frogs get a lot attention when it comes to singing, but crocodiles and alligators also croon, and in their own special way.

"It sounds like thunder and can travel a long distance," said study co-author Xianyan Wang, a Wuhan-based hydrobiologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Wang thought the Chinese alligator song might be a way for individual males to attract females—generally the case when it comes to animal tunes.

To find out, Wang and colleagues recorded the songs of male and female Chinese alligators. The team then played the calls to captive alligators of different genders, one by one, in a water-filled testing arena at the semiwild Anhui Research Center for Chinese Alligator Reproduction in the city of Xuancheng (map).

The researchers had expected females to draw closer to the speaker that was playing recordings of males. Surprisingly, though, males and females reacted the same way to the calls of either gender.

All the alligators stayed put, and about 75 percent of the alligators joined the recorded song.

This response suggests that alligators don't sing to compete for prospective mates, the study says. But because the choruses increase during mating season, Wang said, they must have something to do with sex.

Maybe, he suggested, the singing is a way of detecting other alligators in the area so mating groups can be formed—a kind of reptilian romantic-networking system.

Next, to confirm his theory, Wang plans to test alligators in the wild and to study alligator singing outside of mating season, when, presumably, the songs are about something other than seduction.

Findings to be published in the October 2009 issue of The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

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