My 8 year old son asked me a question I could not answer (and Google, at least in so far as we tried, was no help either).

We were watching a documentary about Salt Water Crocodiles in Northern Australia.

The crocodiles seem very energy efficient: they barely move if they don't absolutely need to (and when they do, it is mostly to eat). Particularly, they hardly ever run, but when they do they are very fast and powerful.

So the question he asked me was: how can crocodiles remain so fit if they don't do any exercise?

If humans just sat around and moved only to eat, ran only when they absolutely had to, our muscles would atrophy. Other mammals seem to be in a similar boat to us humans.

Why not crocs? What distinguishes animals that need to exercise to be strong from animals that don't?

This is the closest question I could find here, but I don't think it assists in answering this question: Do insects' muscles become stronger with exercise?

  • $\begingroup$ Imagine their strength and speed if they would exercise. In other words: what make you think they are currently at their maximum potential? $\endgroup$ – Jeff Nov 7 '15 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ It is a good point and the proposed answer below seems to suggest there is some truth to that. But still mammals seem to have a lot more built-in 'inefficiencies' (presumably for training) than do crocs. By inefficiencies I mean tendency to exercise without the direct outcome being food: whether play and hunting against long odds (or in the case of humans straight up exercise). And we seem to need those 'inefficiencies' to survive. Why do some species rely on external stimulation to reach fitness while others (apparently) much less so? $\endgroup$ – rafraf Nov 12 '15 at 7:47

Let us start with difference between humans and crocodiles. There are lot of differences but the one which matters in current discussion is thermophysiology.

Unlike humans, crocodiles are cold blooded animals (more specifically ectotherms). These animals needs to get heat from environmental sources to maintain their body temperature. As contrast to humans who can get heat from internal metabolism. That is the precise reason crocodiles are seen always not moving and basking in sun light when it is cold (while go to shade or water if it is hot). Read this for more elaborate strategies they use. If you want scientific reference, you can check this, this or this.

On your exercise point, there are few reports which suggest exercise can enhances aerobic capacity in young crocodiles. In this study they actually put crocodiles on treadmill and checked affect on their respiration. This report suggest crocodile uses 3 different kinds of muscle mechanisms for lung ventilation. These three act differently in different conditions (means one acts during rest while other during high metabolism). However I couldn't find any information regarding atrophy.

how can crocodiles remain so fit if they don't do any exercise? What distinguishes animals that need to exercise to be strong from animals that don't?

Short answer: Their body metabolism.

Their body metabolism is different from human's. Although doing exercise might help in their aerobic capacity as mentioned in reference above.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Great answer. Thank you. Though I don't quite understand it as it pertains to strength and adaptation. Humans and mammals seem to need to stimulate muscles in order to develop them to their potential. Superficially, it appears that crocodiles do not. I understand that the distinction you draw (which makes more sense) is between cold/warm blooded (as opposed to crocodiles/mammals), but what I am missing is (a) whether the lay observation that they don't need exercise as much as mammals is true and (b) if true, why? $\endgroup$ – rafraf Nov 7 '15 at 10:25
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    $\begingroup$ @rafraf Not the case for all mammals I think, for example the bears that hibernate do not lose nearly as much muscle mass as humans would during the same period of not doing any physical activity $\endgroup$ – Zavior Nov 7 '15 at 10:33
  • $\begingroup$ rafraf : your questions are right. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any good studies related to muscle atrophy in crocodiles. On other hand @Zavior is also correct. $\endgroup$ – Dexter Nov 8 '15 at 5:08

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