Crocodiles, alligators, caimans and the gharials are robust semi-aquatic reptiles, with a body design focused towards power. With a morphological focus towards muscle mass it might be easy to assume the brain has taken a back seat within its development. The theory of evolution might support this concept and as such, the reptilian brain has been associated with basic instinctual processes such as acts of dominance and territoriality.
Though reptiles relatively speaking are closely related to birds, perceived intelligence has been reserved solely for birds and mammals. The use of tools was a behaviour first achieved by the human clade over two million years ago and seems to be a favorite amongst behavioural scientists, which might explains why tool utilising animals such as birds and mammals rank highly. However, current research suggests tools to be part of the crocodilian repertoire as well, finally elevating the reptilian class’s recognised IQ.
In this case sticks are the crocodilian tool of choice, scientist have observed particularly in Indian and American alligators a type of stick-baiting. Hungry gators balance twigs and branches on their snout and submerge under the surface nearby heron nesting site. Birds who intelligently seek to re-purpose these floating sticks into finely crafted nests, become the crocodiles next meal. To understand the significance of this discovery, the concept of tool use has to be explored. Whilst some may debate this activity to be a simple display of intelligence, several fairly advanced trains of thought needs to have occurred for this process to take place. Firstly, crocodiles may have observed and learnt, collecting information upon its prey, like the scientists keenly analysing the crocodiles. Secondly, it may have generated a plan and sourced a specific tool to assist in its success. By knowingly expending energy in stick collection the crocodile may be applying an intrinsic value toward an inanimate object; which though bold to say is probably the most human aspect of this activity. This cognitive complexity shows a level of rational thinking which surely balances the crocodile’s previously bias brawn over brains dynamic.
Stick-baiting might be an ancient crocodilian activity yet its investigation may be challenging to achieve due to the allusive nature of the subject. This interesting observation was brought to the attention of biologists by the birds. Due to the fact nesting birds readily collect sticks within their immediate surroundings coupled with a minimal number of trees that shed branches at this time of year, any floating sticks might have been brought from elsewhere. Supporting the idea that crocodiles might be searching far and wide as opposed to opportunistically using floating debris in the area. Stick-baiting is a type of seasonal hunting only displayed when warm climates trigger birds to nest, which further highlights this as a highly specialised exercise of cognitive prowess.
Tool use was initially thought to be a human only phenomenon, yet as understanding changes, it has become more of a unique indicator of increased sentience. Today tool use seemingly presents itself in many walks of life, which either places of own uniqueness into question or misestimates the level of intellect reptiles possess, particularly crocodilians. Crocodiles may be unveiled as skilled thinkers capable of flexible multimodal signalling and advanced parental care and highly coordinated group hunting tactics. If reintroduce the comparison between human and crocodile intelligence, striking similarities may now emerge.
How smart are crocodiles? What secrets do these cryptic animals still have to reveal?