If you were creeped out by alligators before, prepare to have the creepy factor raised: new research demonstrates that alligators are far more intelligent than previously thought.
For most of mankind's existence, it has been held that humans were the only tool-using creatures. Then in 1964, Jane Goodall first recorded chimpanzees using sticks as tools. Over the years since, more and more animals have been discovered to be tool-users: apes, elephants, dolphins, birds. And now this latest announcement marks the first known instance of a tool-using reptile.
According to Naples News:
Vladimir Dinets, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee and an author of a new study describing this hunting technique, first saw a hint that crocodilians — which include crocodiles, alligators, and caimans — might use sticks as a lure in 2007. Doing research in India, he watched as a mugger crocodile lay motionless in shallow water with an array of sticks and twigs laid across its snout. When an egret flew by to grab the stick, the crocodile snapped and the bird narrowly escaped. Dinets had heard stories of similar crafty behavior by animals at Florida's St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoo.
But these were just isolated anecdotes, not subject to the rigors of scientific observation. "We needed to prove convincingly that the use of sticks was intentional," Dinets said. He started spending his weekends at two Louisiana lakes and discovered that the use of sticks as bait by wild alligators there was not haphazard. Alligators living beneath bird rookeries used them, while others didn't. Because the trees near the lakes don't regularly shed branches or twigs, this suggests that the gators were intentionally searching out sticks to use.
More significant, the alligators only used twigs as bait during the time of year that the wading birds were busy collecting twigs for their nests, from late March through early June.
This is the first report of a predator synchronizing the use of hunting lures to the seasonal behavior of its prey. And if tool use is rare in the animal kingdom, the use of objects as bait is even more rare. Until now, it has only ever been seen in capuchin monkeys, a few bird species and one insect.
There are at least 1.3 million alligators in Florida (and some sources put the figure at twice that), and while croc populations aren't nearly as great, it's estimated there are over 1,500 crocodiles in the Everglades National Park alone. Florida is so overrun with these critters, it's no wonder it has a thriving alligator-removal industry and a government-sponsored nuisance alligator report hotline. And the state has at least 30 alligator farms as well.
Watch your back and stay frosty out there, my fellow swampsters.