Crocodiles appeared to nudge a stray dog to safety when it took refuge in a river.
Scientists are not sure why the crocs didn't just eat the dog, as they were within "striking range."
Ultimately, researchers believe crocodiles have a higher cognitive function than they're given credit for.
A dog running from a pack of feral dogs dove into an even more dangerous situation when it took a swim in a crocodile-infested river. Instead of turning the dog into a snack, the crocodiles appeared to usher it to safety.
Researchers published images of the event in the August edition of the Journal of Threatened Taxa. They were studying the behavior of mugger crocodiles in the Savitri River in Maharashtra, India.
"These crocodiles were actually touching the dog with their snout" the researchers reported in the study, writing that the crocodiles "seemingly nudged and escorted [the dog] to safety."
While it may be surprising that the reptiles didn't jump at the opportunity for a seemingly easy meal, Chris Murray, a biologist with Southeastern Louisiana University, told Insider there are many reasons why the crocodiles may have let the dog pass.
They may have been full or felt too exposed to ambush the prey. Or they might have had negative experiences trying to eat dogs in the past, he said.
"You see these cost-benefit analyses occur in nature all the time when it comes to the ecology of feeding," Murray said.
He doesn't think the animals were displaying empathy, as the researchers suggest.
Some areas of coastal India and Sri Lanka have large populations of mugger crocodiles living near people, leading to some of the highest frequencies of attacks on humans anywhere in the world, Murray said. "So I find the compassion of crocodilians highly unlikely."
But he does agree with the paper's authors that humans often underestimate crocodiles' cognition.
Murray knows of instances of crocodilians using sticks to lure birds to land on them and engaging in communal feeding, helping other members of a group get food. He's also seen crocodilians seem to learn from past experiences.
"I think some of those things are predominantly anecdotal, obviously, and I have some of those anecdotes for myself," Murray said. "So I think that their cognitive ability — of assessing what's around and their memory — is far better than I think we give them credit for," he said.
"They're not just mean, lumbering reptiles," he said. But they're likely not taking pity on dogs in distress, either.
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