"This is indeed the first convincing evidence of tool use in any reptile," said Burghardt, who wasn't involved in the study. (Alligator Alley: Pictures of Monster Reptiles)
The finding, along with other recent work, suggests reptiles are much more intelligent than generally acknowledged, Dinets said. As anybody who studies the beasts can attest, they are quite smart, he added. Crocodiles, for example, have complex communication systems, can hunt in coordination and ambush prey, and both parents may help raise young, he said.
Relatively less is known about crocodiles and alligators than many animals, because, as large predators, they are difficult to raise in the lab and study up close in the wild. Their cold-bloodedness also makes them slow.
"They operate on a different time scale; they do things more slowly," Burghardt said. "Sometimes we don't have the patience to let them strut their stuff, as it were ... so this kind of study is important."
Wading birds like snowy egrets have been known to nest in wooded islands near areas with high levels of alligators, for example in Florida. Scientists think the birds nest near such scaly enemies because the alligators keep at bay predators like snakes. Apparently, the occasional loss of adult birds to the hungry alligators, or nestlings that fall into the water, is worth the lowered risk of being eaten by something else, according to the study.