Some reptiles have a secret social life
Everyone knows that the survival of many insects, mammals and birds depends on their highly social life.
Bees work in unison to build their hive and even cooperatively regulate hive temperatures to protect developing eggs from heat or cold. A wolf pack functions like a military platoon, using coordinated tactics to isolate a stray caribou from the rest of the herd. Flocks of red-winged blackbirds and blackbirds congregate in large numbers before the fall migrations, dramatically decreasing an individual’s chances of being the one chosen by a predator. Birds also benefit as flock members find an assortment of food sources.
Reptiles, on the other hand, do not appear to be particularly social animals; rather, they seem to be loners. “The Secret Lives of Reptiles” (Johns Hopkins University Press. 2021) by Sean Doody, Vladimir Dinets and Gordon M. Burghardt dispels this impression. The book provides fascinating accounts of various forms of social behavior from this intriguing group of animals, which includes snakes, lizards, turtles, alligators, and crocodiles.
There are several reasons for the mistaken perception that reptiles engage in limited social behavior. Scientists and government funding agencies bear some responsibility in this regard.
Each year, many more research projects are conducted and published on birds and mammals than on reptiles, which roughly reflects the level of funding. Another reason, which the authors mention in “Secret Lives”, is that most cultures share a general ignorance of reptile biology compared to their knowledge of birds, which are much more apparent, and mammals, which are important. for humans because of our myriad of interactions with them.
Lack of familiarity often breeds mistrust and paranoia. One of the reasons for the relative dearth of knowledge about reptiles is the secretive behavior of most of them. They are part of the hidden biodiversity that usually goes unnoticed. A book summarizing what we know is a useful aid in identifying what we still need to learn.
The book discusses a variety of unusual behaviors that can happen more often than we realize.
An intriguing phenomenon known as chain fishing has been described as cooperative behavior by crocodilians. Crocodiles in Africa, Asia and Australia have been observed blocking the channels in which migrating fish are found by placing their bodies side by side and opening their mouths.
Explorer William Bartram first reported chain fishing by American alligators in the 1700s around the St. Johns River in Florida. Such behavior was probably more common before humans significantly altered the environment. We disrupted the lives of alligators throughout their geographic range, bringing them to the brink of extinction in the 1960s. Chain fishing and other cooperative hunting behaviors are less likely to occur now, except in rare circumstances.
One of the most remarkable group behaviors ever seen in reptiles is community nesting, known as arribada in sea turtles. Historically, tens of thousands of sea turtles would come out of the ocean on a beach for several days to lay their eggs.
In a documented event each year, up to half a million ridley sea turtles travel from deep ocean habitats in the Pacific to beaches in Mexico. Freshwater turtles are also known to nest collectively in large numbers. The giant tortoises of the Brazilian Amazon swoop down on sandbanks to nest in large numbers. Unfortunately, such group behaviors are less and less observed due to the reduction in the size of populations of many species due to human overexploitation and degradation of their habitat.
“The Secret Lives of Reptiles” details many social behaviors among these enigmatic animals, adding to the world knowledge of this poorly understood class. We will never discover all the intriguing characteristics of all species on earth. This does not mean that we should stop speculating and investigating. Far from there.
One of the obligations of an educated population is to support scientists who explore the mysteries of our world, who ask and answer questions about the mundane and the exotic.
Whit Gibbons is Professor of Zoology and Senior Biologist in the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the University of Georgia. If you have an environmental question or comment, send an email to [email protected]