Cowabunga dude! Crocodilians enjoy surfing, playing with makeshift toys, and getting piggyback rides from their buddies, according to a new paper published in Animal Behavior and Cognition last week.
Vladimir Dinets from the University of Tennessee has spent over 3,000 hours observing crocodile communication during mating season in the wild and in captivity, and in that time, he's noticed that crocs engage in play-like behavior. Play is generally considered not functional for survival, intentional and voluntary, and usually initiated when the animal is relaxed. To supplement his own observations, he conducted surveys over social media and at conferences to gather evidence, both anecdotal and from published reports. He found 17 records of play in 10 species of crocodilians.
Behavior specialists have previously distinguished three main types of play: locomotor play (related to locomotion), play with objects, and social play. The one most frequently reported was play with objects. Crocodilians have been spotted playing with wooden balls and ceramic bits, biting streams of water from drippy pipes and hoses, and tossing their dead prey items up in the air. They also seem to be attracted to floating debris like leaves, feathers, and petals—especially pink ones. To the right is a crocodile playing with pink flowers. Zookeepers now often provide various toys for crocs as part of their habitat enrichment programs.
As for locomotor play, it’s no surprise that crocodilians seems to enjoy adventurous water sports the best. Young alligators have been seen repeatedly sliding down slopes into water, while crocodiles surf ocean waves and caimans ride water currents in their pools.
Observed cases of social play include baby alligators riding on the backs of their older friends, baby caimans chasing each other in circles, and there was also a male crocodile giving his lifetime mate rides on his back (pictured above). Furthermore, they play with other animals too, such as river otters and even people. In one rare example, a rescued American crocodile in Costa Rica bonded with a human for 20 years. Their playtime activities included Pocho the croc startling the human by suddenly pretending to attack him or by sneaking up on him from behind, Dinets says in a news release.
Dinet thinks that playing is a universal feature of animals with complex and flexible behavior. Understanding the behavior in crocs could help determine how intelligence evolves—and what’s needed for its development.
Images: Vladimir Dinets