Cameras Strapped To Alligators' Backs Reveal Their Deadly Hunting Habits [VIDEO]

By Josh Lieberman on January 16, 2014 3:46 PM EST

alligator
Researchers strapped cameras onto 15 alligators in Florida, which revealed a trove of information about their predatory habits. (Photo: Reuters)

Strap a camera onto an alligator and you get some pretty interesting results. University of Florida biologist James Nifong and his colleagues put cameras on 15 American alligators in coastal Florida, allowing them to see how alligators hunt and how often they attempt to capture prey.

"They're smarter than we think," said Nifong. "Their lineage goes back to the time of the dinosaurs, and they've been around for a reason. People should give them a little more credit."

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After strapping National Geographic Crittercams onto the alligators--a process that Nifong says involved a lot of thrashing around, as you might imagine--the researchers were able to observe alligators hunting underwater. They found that underwater attacks were twice as successful as those above water, and that overall alligators nabbed prey in about 50 percent of attacks. That predatory success rate puts alligators in elite company: lions only have a success rate of between 17 and 30 percent, and great white sharks, one of the deadliest predators, have a success rate of about 55 percent (a figure that can sometimes reach as high as 80 percent).

"We discovered that alligators forage at all times of the day, but increasingly during the night and evening hours, however they were most successful in the morning and while attacking prey below the surface," said Nifong.

The cameras were strapped behind the alligators' heads (see the video below), so the researchers could not actually see whether an alligator successfully struck its prey. They considered an alligator to be attacking prey whenever its head lunged forward or it snapped its jaw, and they considered it a successful attack if the alligator then chewed and swallowed.

The researchers say that using cameras to study the alligators' hunting behavior is more effective than previous methods, which include looking at alligators' stomach contents or making direct observations of the alligators in the wild. Those methods are not as accurate, the researchers say. Cameras are the easiest way to see how often alligators attack--and how often they're successful--and allows researchers to study alligators' underwater habits.

Nifong and his team's study, "Animal-Borne Imaging Reveals Novel Insights into the Foraging Behaviors and Diel Activity of a Large-Bodied Apex Predator, the American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)," was published this week in PLoS One.

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