A dog in India encountered three crocodiles in a river and still told the story, thanks to what researchers suspect may be a display of “emotional empathy” on the part of the reptiles.
In a paper published late last month in the Journal of Threatened TaxaScientists described the surprising incident involving a dog and a trio Robber crocodiles – also known as marsh crocodiles – in the Savitri River in Maharashtra, India.
During observations for a long-term study of highway robbers in their natural habitat, researchers reported that a “young dog” was chased into the river by a pack of wild dogs. Three adult crocodiles were waiting in the shallow water and “could have easily swallowed” the dog.
The crocodiles approached the dog, but instead of attacking, two of them led the dog not only out of the river, but also away from the bank where the aggressive wild dogs were waiting.
“These crocodiles actually touched the dog with their snout and nudged it to move forward, safely ascending the bank and eventually escaping,” wrote Utkarsha M. Chavan and Manoj R. Borkar of India’s Hazarimal Somani College and Carmel College of Arts , Science and Business for Women.
The researchers don’t know why the crocodiles took the dog to safety, but noted that the animals’ “hunger drive appeared to be absent.” They also speculated that the behavior could be evidence of “cross-species ’emotional empathy'” in the reptiles.
However, the researchers found that on two other occasions crocodiles had “chased” stray dogs in the river.
Elsewhere, the paper describes other crocodilian behaviors that it believes deserve further study. The reptiles appeared to work together to hunt fish and were seen balancing sticks on their snouts, apparently to attract the birds they eat, which use sticks as nesting material.
And in one particularly “fascinating” observation, the crocodiles appeared to have an affinity for marigold flowers, which are thrown into the river as part of local burial rites. The animals “floated, sunbathed, and regularly lay near” the flowers, “often with physical contact.” The researchers noted that marigolds have antibacterial properties that could be beneficial.
Reptile biologist Duncan Leitch of the University of California, Los Angeles, who is not involved in the research, cautioned against reading too much into the observations.
“Crocodiles have a sophisticated behavioral pattern” he told LiveScience. However, he cautioned against interpreting their behavior from an “anthropomorphic perspective” or attributing to them “abilities that they may not have.”
For their part, the paper’s authors say their observations point to a greater need to study crocodilian cognition – and that it’s possible the animals are more intelligent than people have long believed.
“Reptiles have been underestimated in terms of animal cognition, perhaps due to the misconception that they are lethargic and reflex machines at best…due to the small size and simple structure of their brains,” they wrote in the paper Conclusion. “Overall, research on reptilian cognition has not made much progress because of such biases.”