In recent years it has – I really, really hope – become better known that non-bird reptiles (turtles, lizards, snakes, crocodiles, alligators and so on) are not boring dullards, but behaviourally complex creatures that get up to all sorts of interesting things. Play behaviour, complex social interactions, gaze recognition, pair-bonding and monogamy, social hunting, speedy learning abilities and good memories have all been demonstrated across these groups. And another interesting and unexpected bit of complex behaviour has just been published. It’s so interesting that I feel compelled to write about it today. It concerns what seems to be tool use in crocodiles and alligators.
As described by Dinets et al. (2013), Mugger crocodiles Crocodylus palustris in India and American alligators Alligator mississippiensis in the USA have both been observed to lie, partially submerged, beneath egret and heron colonies with sticks balanced across their snouts. Birds approach to collect the sticks for use in nest building and… well, let’s just say that it doesn’t end well for the birds. If the crocodylians really are using the sticks as bait to attract their bird prey, this is tool use, since the sticks are objects that are being employed for a specific function.