Alligators aren't the most intelligent creatures, but they are smarter than they appear, Beaufort County animal catchers say.
Critter Management owner Joe Maffo said alligators, despite their relatively small brains, are capable of some "amazing" things. For one, the gators appear to be able to find their way back to home ponds and swamps from nearly 30 miles away, he said.
"I've taken alligators to the New River in Hardeeville 30 miles away and released them, and in a few months, I'll find them back on (Hilton Head) Island," Maffo said. "The females return faster than the males. The females just want to get home."
Alligators' homing instincts are well-documented, including an instance near Beaufort. A 6-foot alligator trapped in a pond was released on an island in Bulls Bay, more than 30 miles and five river basins away. The alligator was caught in its home pond 14 years later, having grown to 10 feet.
"For an animal 11 feet long with a brain less than a gram, they're pretty amazing animals," Maffo said. "They don't make the same mistake twice."
According to a recent study, their intelligence might be sharper than humans previously supposed.
American alligators and their cousin Indian marsh crocodiles have apparently begun balancing twigs on their snouts to lure wading birds, which try to grab the twigs for nests. A study published in the journal Ethology, Ecology and Evolution said alligators are one of the few animals using the baiting trick to catch prey.
"For people working with alligators, it comes as little surprise because we already know how smart they can be, but for the general public it is apparently a bit unexpected," said Vladimir Dinets, a University of Tennessee psychology researcher and the study's lead author.
The alligators in Louisiana documented for the study apparently recognized the short window they had to deceive the birds, which only arrive during a short nesting season.
Maffo said he hadn't heard of the twig trick but knows alligators will wait under trees to try to eat birds.
Harvey Dunn, owner of Southern Critter Removal in Bluffton, said alligators that live in swamps are "savvier" than their brethren in suburban ponds and need to use deception to lure their prey. Dunn said he once came across an alligator that had covered itself in mud in a dry area of a swamp bed to hide itself.
"The alligator was lying in wait for something to come by," he said. "You would have never known it was there until it moved."
Maffo recounted capturing an alligator behind a Hilton Head Island Holiday Inn during the summer that apparently had recognized a color as a warning sign.
The alligator ran from Maffo, who was trying to grab the reptile with a long snare, but it didn't react to nearby lifeguards. Maffo said he realized the alligator could recognize the yellow shirt he was wearing and would run off when he tried to get close.
When he took off the shirt, the alligator stopped trying to run away.
"It had apparently recognized the color of my shirt," he said. "He allowed us to take him after I took the shirt off. It was so minimal, but it's pretty amazing."
Charleston Post and Courier staff writer Bo Petersen contributed to this report.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.