Crocodiles just wanna have fun, too

February 10, 2015
A male crocodile gives a piggyback ride to his lifelong female partner. Credit: Vladimir Dinets

Turns out we may have more in common with crocodiles than we'd ever dream. According to research by a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, crocodiles think surfing waves, playing ball and going on piggyback rides are fun, too.

Vladimir Dinets, a research assistant professor in psychology, has studied crocodiles for a decade. While doing so, he has observed the animals engaging in play-like behavior. To get more data, he conducted an informal survey of crocodilian-themed groups on social media and various conferences.

His results show a softer side of the intimidating creatures—one that includes romping around with river otters and people. The findings could shed light on how intelligence has evolved.

The research shows that crocodilians engage in all three main types of play distinguished by behavior specialists: locomotor play, play with objects and social play. Play with objects is reported most often. Crocodilians have been spotted playing with wooden balls, noisy ceramic bits, streams of water, their prey and debris floating in the water. Cases of locomotor play include young alligators repeatedly sliding down slopes, crocodiles surfing ocean waves and caimans riding currents of water in their pools. Observed cases of social play include baby alligators riding on their older friends' backs, baby caimans playfully "courting" each other and a male crocodile giving his lifetime mate rides on his back.

A crocodile plays with pink flowers. Credit: Vladimir Dinets

Crocodiles have also been seen playing with other animals. Dinets observed a juvenile alligator playing with a river otter. In rare cases, individual crocodilians have been known to bond so strongly with people that they become playmates for years. For example, a man who rescued a crocodile that had been shot in the head became close friends with the animal. They happily played every day until the crocodile's death 20 years later.

"The croc would swim with his human friend, try to startle him by suddenly pretending to attack him or by sneaking up on him from behind, and accept being caressed, hugged, rotated in the water and kissed on the snout," said Dinets.

Dinets' research builds on the work of colleague Gordon Burghardt, a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, whose work defined "play" in a way that allows us to identify it in species not previously thought capable of play, such as wasps, fish and invertebrates. Dinets' work provides further evidence that play is a universal feature of "intelligent" animals—those with complex, flexible behavior. This knowledge might help determine how intelligence evolves and what is needed for its development.

"Hundreds of thousands of crocodilians are now kept in captivity in zoos, commercial farms and breeding centers set up for endangered species. Providing them with toys and other opportunities for play makes them happier and healthier," Dinets said.

The work is the first to scientifically study in crocodiles. It is published in the journal Animal Behavior and Cognition and can be viewed here.

Previous research by Dinets discovered that are able to climb trees, work as a team and use lures such as sticks to hunt prey. More of his crocodile research can be found in his book "Dragon Songs."

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Lex Talonis
5 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2015

Awwwww ain't they sweet...

I like it when the keeper sticks their head in the crocs mouth and the croc decides to playfully bite their head off...

It's lots of fun.

Good article though.
3 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2015
I thought the croc shot in the head basically had brain damage that made him docile?
Feb 11, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2015
We humans seem to have this desire, this natural bias towards anthropomorphizing other critters. I take all this discovery about 'fun' with a large grain of salt. Starting with a clear agreement as to the definition.
Lex Talonis
5 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2015
Here the man is with his croc friend.....


Here are some friendly Australian salt water crocodiles...


There was one documentary I saw, where a young elephant had died in the river at a crossing in Effrika, and there were many very hungry crocodiles, so they all cued up, took a little bit and gave the next one their turn....

You could see that they were thinking, feeling, social and intelligent beings.

This issue of anthropomorphizing other creatures... well we are all one.

This movie was based upon a girl who could call the whales.


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