Crocs just got scarier

Clever croc­o­diles and al­li­ga­tors use sticks to lure prey to its doom.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By AMINA KHAN

AS IF croc­o­diles and al­li­ga­tors weren’t ter­ri­fy­ing enough, sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered that th­ese an­cient, sharp-toothed beasts are in­cred­i­bly cun­ning. So clever that they use lures to trap and gob­ble un­sus­pect­ing birds.

The dis­cov­ery in two crocodil­ian species – mug­ger croc­o­diles and Amer­i­can al­li­ga­tors – is the first re­port of tool use in rep­tiles, ac­cord­ing to a study in the jour­nal Ethol­ogy Ecol­ogy And Evo­lu­tion.

Some birds, like egrets, ac­tu­ally choose to nest around croc­o­dile and al­li­ga­tor hang­outs be­cause they of­fer some pro­tec­tion from tree-climb­ing preda­tors like rac­coons, snakes and mon­keys. There’s a blood price, how­ever. Chicks and some­times adult birds will be­come snacks for the crocodil­ians if they ven­ture too close.

While on a re­search trip to Madras Croc­o­dile Bank in Tamil Nadu, In­dia, lead au­thor Vladimir Dinets of the Univer­sity of Ten­nessee no­ticed that mug­ger croc­o­diles seemed to be bal­anc­ing twigs on their snouts.

“The croc­o­diles re­mained per­fectly still for hours, and if they did move to change po­si­tion, they did it in such a way that the sticks re­mained bal­anced on their snouts,” ac­cord­ing to the pa­per.

Then, as an egret came close and leaned over to grab a stick, the croc­o­dile sud­denly lunged. The bird barely es­caped with its life.

The study’s two other co-au­thors no­ticed sim­i­lar be­hav­iour over 13 years work­ing at St Au­gus­tine Al­li­ga­tor Farm Zoo­log­i­cal Park in Florida.

Were the sticks purely there by co­in­ci­dence? Was it just part of the cam­ou­flage? Or could th­ese rep­tiles ac­tu­ally be us­ing th­ese sticks as lures?

Af­ter study­ing the habits of th­ese rep­tiles at four sites in Louisiana for a year, the sci­en­tists con­firmed that al­li­ga­tors and croc­o­diles do in­deed use twigs to lure un­sus­pect­ing birds to their doom.

Here was the re­ally strange part: the rep­tiles were cov­er­ing their snouts with sticks only dur­ing spring nest­ing sea­son, when de­mand for twigs was high and birds would grab ev­ery lit­tle woody scrap they could get their beaks on to build their nests.

Birds will get into nasty fights over th­ese valu­able build­ing ma­te­ri­als, and even steal twigs from one another. If a cam­ou­flaged croc­o­dile or al­li­ga­tor had a stick on its snout, chances are a fool­ish bird would make a go for it. So the crocodil­ians were not just clever enough to use lures, they were also aware enough of bird be­hav­iour to know ex­actly when their bait would be use­ful.

“Use of ob­jects as hunt­ing lures is very rare among an­i­mals, be­ing known to date only in cap­tive capuchin mon­keys, a few bird species and one in­sect,” the au­thors wrote.

It’s in­deed a rare skill in­dica­tive of com­plex be­hav­iour. And be­cause crocodil­ians as a group have been around since the time of the di­nosaurs, the sci­en­tists think it could also shed light on their long-ex­tinct rel­a­tives. Preda­tory di­nosaurs might have been much smarter – and thus, per­haps even scarier – than we cur­rently be­lieve. – Los An­ge­les Times / McClatchy-Tri­bune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

Cun­ning preda­tor: Sci­en­tists have ob­served croc­o­diles bal­anc­ing twigs on their snouts and stay­ing per­fectly still for hours, wait­ing for un­sus­pect­ing birds to try and grab the sticks be­fore pounc­ing.

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