Hitchin' a ride
Colin and Sarah Northway, flickr

It’s the season to cool off in water, whether you prefer the pool, Slide Rock, a water balloon fight or standing outside in a monsoon rain. Lots of animals take to the water, too, which can be surprising. I was once rather alarmed to see a bird called a cormorant swim by me over 40 feet below the surface while I was scuba diving. They can dive deeper — to depths of 150 feet — but I did not know that, so I was genuinely shocked.

I would have been even more astonished to see a tiger swimming, especially because I was diving off the coast of California’s Catalina Island, and tigers don’t live there. Tigers do live in tropical forests where they are adept at crossing the many rivers in their habitat. They often travel long distances in search of prey, crossing wide rivers, and they have been reported to swim up to 18 miles in a single day. Tigers can even hunt and carry prey while they are swimming, so it is clearly preferable to see a cormorant in the ocean than to see a tiger.

Here in the desert, we often see snakes on the ground and on rocks. However, many species spend a lot of time in the water, and all snakes are able to swim, which is pretty cool even if many people consider it bad news. Snakes propel themselves through the water by undulating the body into an S shape with a wave that starts at the head. The best snake swimmers, such as sea snakes, water moccasins and sea kraits, have flattened bodies that allow them to swim more efficiently than round snakes can.

Sloths are well known for the low energy and slow motion embodied in the name “sloth.” With an average walking speed of 10 feet per minute and the capability of accelerating to 15 feet per minute when in real danger, they deserve their name when on land. In the water, it’s a different story. They are good swimmers capable of swimming faster than they are able to walk. They can cover 45 feet per minute, which is really cruising by sloth standards! Their long arms make them proficient at paddling, and they are quite comfortable in rivers, often crossing them to find a new tree in which to forage. Because they are able to decrease their already slow metabolism and lower their heart rate to one-third of its normal pace, they can hold their breath underwater for up to 40 minutes.

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Camels can swim, and one breed excels at it. The Kharai camels from the Kutch region of Gujarat in Western India regularly travel through the water to reach mangroves, which are one of their favorite foods. They can swim for over two miles, and are so comfortable in the water that they are the only camel breed known to be able to survive in both marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

Many animals are good at swimming, regardless of whether their abilities catch us off guard.

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Certified Professional Dog Trainer, author and an adjunct faculty member in NAU’s Department of Biological Sciences.

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