A day at the beach interrupted by a swarm of hundreds or thousands of crocodiles emerging from the water and walking onto the sand sounds like a story concocted from someone’s nightmares. But that’s what several people recently claimed in viral posts across social media sites.
On Sept. 15, Ken Rutowski, a talk radio host, posted a video of what appears to be crocodiles sitting on a sandy beach with little space between them. He said the video, which has been viewed more than 10 million times, depicts an “invasion” of several hundred of thousands of crocodiles swarming a Brazilian beach, causing the “local population” to panic.
Another version of that video posted with the same caption and viewed just under 2 million times was posted on Sept. 13. That caption was again used in a version of the video posted to Instagram later that same week.
Did hundreds of “crocodiles” send the “local population panicking” by invading a beach?
Kent Vliet, Ph.D, biologist researching crocodilian biology at the University of Florida
Pantanal Escapes, a free travel guide for visitors to the Pantanal region
No, hundreds of crocodiles did not send the “local population panicking” by invading a beach. The animals are actually caimans and the video was shot in a remote region of Brazil, not a popular beach destination.
WHAT WE FOUND
The caption to the viral video gets exactly one detail right: It was recorded in Brazil. But most of the other details in the caption are wrong. The video is from an uninhabited area of a large, inland wetland populated by piranhas and far from the Brazilian coastline, so there’s no local population to panic, especially not one that would use that beach. This behavior isn't unusual for caimans, a smaller relative of the crocodiles, which are the actual animals in the video.
“These are yacare caiman in an enormous flooded grassland called the Pantanal found mostly in southern Brazil but also parts of Paraguay and Bolivia,” wrote Kent Vliet, a researcher of crocodilian biology at the University of Florida, in an email. “When water is plentiful, these caiman spread out over the landscape. But during times of drought, they congregate in huge numbers anywhere that water remains. These animals are basking on the bank to keep their bodies warm. This region has been experiencing extreme drought conditions for several years.”
A longer version of the viral video was posted to YouTube and Instagram as early as Aug. 25, both of which locate the video to the Pantanal, which the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says is the world’s largest tropical wetland in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. WWF says floodwaters fill up the Pantanal between October and March — the summer months in that region — and then slowly drain out during the winter months.
The YouTube video’s title and description further narrows the location to the Nabileque River, which is a small river that runs through the Pantanal and into the Paraguay River on Brazil’s border with Paraguay.
But the original, longer version of the viral video also reveals a detail to help more precisely pinpoint the location of the video. At the end of the original video, in a part cut out of the version that went viral, the camera pans to the right just enough to see that it was recorded from atop a wooden bridge that crosses the river.
Back in 2016, a newspaper from the area’s closest major city posted a brief news article that included a picture of a wooden bridge running across the Nabileque River. The bridge appears to be the same one as shown in the final second of the original video. The one major difference is the bridge from the news article doesn’t have the fencing the bridge from the video has, but those were likely added later as the news article wrote in Portuguese that the bridge was closing for repairs.
On Google Maps, MS-195 crosses the river about 42 km after the road first begins. This remote bridge is where the video of the caimans would have been recorded.
There are no towns or even communities visible on Google Maps along the entirety of MS-195, which means this river beach is at least 42 km, or 26 miles, from the nearest settlement.
A Sept. 1 Instagram video posted by someone currently in the Nabileque floodplain region of Pantacal depicted an almost identical scene of caimans clustering together on a riverside beach. Videos from earlier in 2022 and from 2020 show caimans gathering along shores elsewhere in Pantanal, and a photographer for National Geographic took a picture in 2016 of a swarm of caimans in shallow waters somewhere in Pantanal.
Both the WWF and Pantanal Escapes say there are an estimated 10 million caiman in Pantanal, with Pantanal Escapes adding that they are “highly visible in significant numbers around lakes and along riverbanks” in the region.
“Despite their toothy look, the species is usually fairly timid. It’s common to see people getting close, and even swimming in the same waters with them,” Pantanal Escapes says. “In fact, the pantanal must be one of the few places where the sight of these reptiles is seen as a positive sign by swimmers ... since they keep down the number of piranha. Nonetheless, caution is important as [caimans] can turn aggressive.”