Scientists have found the American alligator and a dozen other crocodile species enjoy an occasional taste of fruit along with their normal meat-heavy diets of mammals, birds and fish.
The study led by the Wildlife Conservation Society gives new insight into the possible role that crocodilians, some of which have large territories, may play in forest regeneration through digesting and passing seeds from fruits.
Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Florida International University, US Fish and Wildlife Service and University of Florida looked at 18 species of crocodiles.
The species ranged from the American alligator to the fearsome Nile crocodile and researchers found 13 of the species consumed some form of fruit including a variety of berries, legumes, nuts, and grains.
While the authors said some of the fruit ingestion may have been incidental to prey capture, evidence shows that other fruit is consumed deliberately and in large quantities.
Much remains to be learned about how crocodilians process carbohydrates and other plant-based nutrients, though studies suggests that fruit eating is likely to yield nutritional rewards for crocodilians, researchers said.
"Although underreported, fruit eating appears widespread among crocodilians," said the study's lead author, Steven Platt of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
"Given the biomass of crocodiles in many subtropical and tropical wetlands and their capacity for ingesting large numbers of fruits, we consider it likely that crocodilians function as significant seed dispersal agents in many freshwater ecosystems," Platt said.
The study was published in the Journal of Zoology.