Skip to main content
Advertising

Originally published December 7, 2013 at 1:28 PM | Page modified December 7, 2013 at 6:41 PM

  • Share:
           
  • Comments (5)
  • Print

Crocodiles, alligators use sticks to lure, capture prey

Scientists say two crocodilian species — mugger crocodiles and American alligators — balance sticks on their snouts in order to draw in birds during nesting season. The discovery is the first report of tool use in reptiles.


Los Angeles Times

Most Popular Comments
Hide / Show comments
Apparently, evolution is still in progress. It should be interesting to see if the... MORE
Crocs and Republicans have to eat, too. MORE
Yeah, but even if Nancy Pelosi can balance a stick on her snout, can she beat Hillary... MORE

advertising

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, such as egrets, choose to nest around crocodile and alligator hangouts because they offer some protection from tree-climbing predators such as 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 lunged. The bird barely escaped with its life.

The study’s two other co-authors noticed similar behavior 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 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 use twigs to lure unsuspecting birds to their doom.

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 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 behavior 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.



News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon

Love the column? Pre-order the book!

Love the column? Pre-order the book!

Reserve your copy of "The Seattle Sketcher," the long-awaited book by staff artist Gabriel Campanario, for the special price of just $29.95.

Advertising

Partner Video

Advertising


Advertising
The Seattle Times

The door is closed, but it's not locked.

Take a minute to subscribe and continue to enjoy The Seattle Times for as little as 99 cents a week.

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited seattletimes.com content access is included with most subscriptions.

Subscriber login ►