Humans fear crocodiles, but it appears that we share something in common with these predatory reptiles.

Findings of a new study have revealed that, just like many humans, crocodiles find enjoyment in playing ball, surfing waves and going on piggyback rides.

Vladimir Dinets from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville has observed that the intimidating animals engage in play-like behavior during the course of his decade-long study of crocodiles.

He then decided to conduct an informal survey involving crocodile-themed groups online and a number of conferences, and yielded results that showed the creatures have a softer side.

Dinets' research has shown that these fearsome creatures engage in all three main types of play recognized by behavior specialists: social play, locomotor play and play with objects, which is being reported most often. Based on his investigation, Dinets has found that crocodilians play with streams of water, noisy ceramic, wooden balls, their prey and fragments that float in the water.

As for locomotor play, Dinets reported that juvenile alligators repeatedly slide down slopes and surf ocean waves. Caimans also ride in water currents. Crocodilians likewise exhibit social play with baby alligators spotted on the back of their older friends, a male riding on the back of his mate and young caimans courting each other playfully.

"I present the first overview of play behavior of three types (locomotor play, object play and social play) in crocodilians based on original observations, published reports and anecdotal evidence," Dinets wrote in his study, which was published in Animal Behavior and Cognition. "Apparently, play behavior is not particularly rare in crocodilians, but is underreported due to the difficulties of observing it and interpreting the observations."

Dinets' earlier research found that crocodiles can climb trees, work with other crocodiles and use lures to hunt their prey. The latest research is the first scientific study that looked at play in crocodiles and sheds light on the evolution of intelligence. It offers proof that play is a universal feature in animals with flexible and complex behavior.

Dinets said that, based on his research, providing crocodiles that are kept in captivity with instances for play can help promote their well-being.

"Hundreds of thousands of crocodilians are now kept in captivity in zoos, commercial farms and breeding centers set up for endangered species," Dinets said. "Providing them with toys and other opportunities for play makes them happier and healthier."

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