Crocodiles have a well-earned reputation for being dangerous, opportunistic predators but, on this remarkable occasion, chose to nudge a dog to safety, in what scientists say may be "sentient behaviour suggestive of cross-species empathy".
A report published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa outlines how a young dog was observed being chased by a pack of feral dogs and elected to escape into the shallow waters of the Savitri River, in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Generally, not a wise move! And the dog had not spotted the three mugger crocodiles floating nearby, which were seen edging closer to what appeared to be certain prey.
Amazingly, instead of treating themselves to lunch, the adult crocs (which can grow to over 16ft long and weigh 450kg) instead chose to gently push the dog to safety using their snouts.
They even guided him to an area of the riverbank that wasn't occupied by the feral pack, allowing the dog to run off safely on land. It was an action the journal said may have been down to "sentient behaviour suggestive of cross-species empathy" and that the "curious" incident was uncharacteristic of the crocodiles.
The species , and are known to pose a major threat to humans who encroach into their natural habitats.
The journal explained that its analysis of the encounter was speculative, and acknowledged that the crocodiles' kindness may simply have been due their lack of an appetite. Its conclusion, however, focused on the more heart-warming hypothesis.
"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," the authors wrote.
"We propose this to be a case of sentient behaviour of the mugger resulting in cross-species 'emotional empathy', which is not a very extensively investigated behaviour, though capacity of one species to experience the emotional feelings of another species merits recognition. The curious case of a dog 'rescued' by the group of crocodiles reported here seems more on lines of empathy than altruistic behaviour."