Toward the end of "Jurassic Park," the park's game warden is hunting down an escaped velociraptor when he's ambushed from the side by a second dinosaur - and then it's over as soon as you could utter "Clever girl."
Clever might not be the first word that comes to mind when describing crocodiles and alligators, who remain remarkably similar, body-wise, to their prehistoric ancestors who lived alongside dinosaurs. But calling crocodilians clever is more accurate than you might think, despite the fact a gator brain weighs about the same as a deck of cards. A handful of eyewitness reports collected by Vladimir Dinets, an ecologist at the University of Tennessee, indicate that alligators and crocodiles can band together to collaboratively catch prey.
As part of his PhD research studying crocodile communication, Dinets noticed several instances of what appeared to be crocodilians hunting in groups. He also encountered stories of cooperative hunting in crocs and alligators, some dating back to the 19th century. "I immediately started seeing all kinds of behavior that had never been described in scientific literature," he tells The Dodo in an email.
These behaviors, recently reported by Dinets in the journal Ethology, Ecology and Evolution, include large group behavior - such as 60 American alligators who cornered a school of fish in shallow water, for instance - and smaller ambushes, like the crocodile who scared a pig off a mudflat trail and into the waiting jaws of two other crocs.
Dinets says the reports "prove what croc researchers and native people have known all along: crocs and gators are smart, cunning, very effective predators." (Gator brains also pack more computing power per volume than those of mammals or birds.) He points to the works of Rudyard Kipling, for example, who wrote about crafty crocodiles a hundred years ago.
That crocodiles and alligators are actually collaborating, however, is less certain. As Dinets writes in the study: "Was it really mutual cooperation, or were some animals simply snatching prey that was being pursued by others?"
The answer, he writes, will ultimately require more observation in an area of research that's both young and takes place "in often unpleasant field conditions (to put it mildly)." But it's also a field ripe for new discovery. These species are more socially complex than history has given credit - like the fact that baby crocodiles "chat" with their moms.
"There's so much we don't know about crocodilians," Dinets says. "You have to constantly pass by interesting things because you don't have time to study them."
This post has been updated to clarify the brainpower of a 400-pound American alligator.