When a young dog in India sought refuge in a river while being chased by a pack of feral animals, it was immediately surrounded by three crocodiles. They were so close they could "have easily devoured" it, experts say, but when their snouts came in contact, they helped save its life instead.
The situation was described in a new report published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa by scientists who have spent years studying marsh crocodiles, otherwise known as muggers, in Maharashtra, India. Adult male muggers can get up to 18 feet long and weigh up to 1,000 pounds, according to the Wildlife Institute of India, but according to researchers, that massive size doesn't always mean they're aggressive.
They described an instance in which a young dog was being chased "by a pack of feral dogs" and ended up trying to escape in the Savitri River. At that time, three adult muggers "were clearly seen floating close by in the water and their attention was drawn" to the animal.
But rather than making the dog their next prey, two of the three crocodiles displayed "more docile behaviour" than expected. Instead of eating the young animal, the crocodiles "guided" it away from where the pack of dogs were waiting for it on the river bank.
"These crocodiles were actually touching the dog with their snout and nudging it to move further for a safe ascent on the bank and eventually escape," researchers wrote. "...Given that the mugger was well within the striking range and could have easily devoured the dog, yet none of them attacked and instead chose to nudge it towards the bank, implies that the hunger drive was absent."
But why didn't the crocodiles use this as an opportunity to eat the dog, like they have in other instances? Even the scientists are unsure.
Their best guess, however, is that the muggers were simply putting their emotional intelligence on display.
"Emotional empathy" – which allows one species "to experience the emotional feelings of another" – isn't thoroughly investigated in these animals, they said, but it could be an answer.
"The curious case of a dog 'rescued' by the group of crocodiles reported here seems more on lines of empathy than altruistic behavior," scientists said.
In their research, scientists made another "curious" discovery – muggers love marigold flowers.
The crocodiles were regularly seen floating, basking and laying around the yellow and orange flowers, often maintaining "physical contact" with them. Marigold petals are known to have antimicrobial compounds that can help protect skin from fungi and bacteria, researchers said, and given the sewage contamination in the Savitri, it's believed that contact could help alleviate such issues.
"This behavior is novel and intriguing," researchers said, adding that the behavior requires further investigation.
While they can't be sure why the muggers opted to help the dog live rather than help themselves to a meal, one thing is clear, researchers said: "Reptiles have been underestimated as far as animal cognition is concerned."
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