Don’t believe the crocodile tears: Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson & the truth about animal empathy

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to you from Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, bestselling author of nine books on the emotional lives of animals.

It is pretty common to hear the expression “crocodile tears” in reference to somebody who does not feel remorse — rather, using them as a false or insincere display of emotion. They feel, as the phrase suggests, nothing for their victim.

The phrase began in Shakespearean times, with one prominent example given in Act IV of Othello:

“O devil, devil!
If that the Earth could teem with woman’s tears,
Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.
Out of my sight!”

I bring this up because of an intriguing problem. Suppose you were asked to describe the “nature” of the crocodile. Do they feel empathy? Do they feel emotional stress or pain? How do they relate with others in their species? Most would describe them as solitary predators. But what is this image based upon: documentaries where we only see their vicious feeding frenzies?

Have you ever given thought to what these creatures might be like when they aren’t on the hunt and are among their own kind?

The image of “crocodile tears” comes from the belief that the crocodile is so remorseless an animal that for him to weep over a victim is pure hypocrisy. It is a nice conceit. Of course, while all 23 members of the crocodile family (including alligators, caimans, muggers, and gharials) have tear glands, they are only used for physiological reasons. For example, they’re used to moistening their eyes when they are on dry land — not for emotional reasons.

Crocodiles do not, in fact weep over their victims. They don’t weep at all for emotional reasons. However, as far as we know, no animals aside from Homo sapiens weep from sadness, remorse or grief.

But that’s not to say other animals cannot feel sadness, remorse or grief — only that they don’t express these feelings by weeping tears any more than we express happiness by purring or wagging a tail.

Crocodiles are very vocal animals. Their social lives begins before hatching with communications occurring from egg to egg. Moreover, hatchlings have a distinct distress call, which not only brings the mother to help, but also other crocodiles in the vicinity. The adults, therefore, want to protect the babies — any babies.

Sounds to me like empathy. Empathy in a crocodile? Try saying that to the cast of Swamp People.

What we know, for sure, is that we only know tiny fraction of what there is to know. This is true, of course, of many animals, but takes on particular importance in an animal which looms so large in our imaginations.

If you’d like to hear more about challenging our perceptions on the emotional state of animals be sure to stop by on Sat., Mar. 13 for our distinguished lecture series featuring author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson!

Beasts - Book CoverHMNS Distinguished Lecture
Beasts: The Origins of Good and Evil
Jeffrey Moussaiff Masson, Ph.D.
Thursday, March 13, 6:30 p.m.
Tickets $18, HMNS Members $12
Houston Museum of Natural Science, Wortham Giant Screen Theatre
Delve deep into the unexplored territory of animal emotions in an illuminating account of the relationship between humans, animals and our perception of violence. Explore human emotions through animal behavior—the way dogs love, cats practice independence, and elephants grieve for their dead—and examine the difference between the unchecked aggression and the predatory behavior that separates humans from animals. Following the lecture Dr. Jeffry Moussaiff Masson will be signing copies of his new book Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil.

Jeffery MasonAbout the Speaker:
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is the bestselling author of nine books on the emotional life of animals. His book Dogs Never Lie About Love, has sold over 1 million copies worldwide. Jeff lives with his family in Auckland, New Zealand. His newest book is Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil, where Masson looks at why humans have killed 200 million of their own kind in the 20th century alone, while orcas have killed not a single orca in the wild! He will be at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on Mar. 13 for a lecture and book signing.

For advance tickets, call 713-639-4629 or click here.

Archaeopteryx and Friends

Archaeopteryx and Friends
A virtual visit to a Jurassic wild animal preserve
By Neal Immega, Paleontologist

Is it a bird? or a dinosaur? Archy is both. We have the best-preserved Archaeopteryx on display in our basement and you can see all sorts of significant evolutionary developments such as a semi-lunate metacarpel in the wrist, hallux to the side, elongate tail, furcula, a large second digit claw on the hand, a sternum without a keel and all sorts of other highly abstract features that confirm that Archy is both a bird and and a dinosaur. Come and see me and I will debate both sides of the question until you run screaming out of the room. There are literally oceans of virtual ink written about this critter.

BUT WAIT, we have so much more. I want to introduce you to some of the other things that we have that are really significant and just plain cool.

Geosaurus – A Marine Crocodile with a shark like tail but still has legs.

Marine Crocodile
I know that you are thinking about salties (crocs living in saltwater) down under, but you are still thinking within the box. Envision an island with limited species living on it, protected from outside influences by a deadly ocean. Species would evolve to fill every available niche, just like the kangaroos in Australia occupy all the herbivore niches from squirrel to sheep but are still recognizably ‘roos. What would a croc look like if it evolved to take over the role of a marine predator? It could look a whole lot like an Ichthyosaur (see the one in the paleo hall by the freight elevator).  Amazingly enough, we have caught it part way through the process of adapting to sea life:  it has limbs even though it also has a shark-like tail. I wonder if we will ever find a croc without legs that gave live birth and thus never left the water. What an amazing mix of characteristics!

Marine Lizards
Consider a hypersaline sea that was so toxic that anything that fell in it died and was preserved perfectly because there were no bottom scavengers. Lizards seem to be able to live under the very harshest conditions, but there is only one type on this island. The last surviving remnant of this group is the New Zealand Tuatara, a very strange beast. It has a double row of teeth on the upper jaw and a single row below.  The teeth are just projections of the jaw bone. Another feature that can also be seen in fossils is there is a hole in the top of the skull for a “third eye.” Today, the third eye is non-functional, but I bet it was in the far past. Our exhibit has a whole collection of these lizards that lived on land, and they look a lot like modern lizards. BUT, there are also two specimens with vastly more ribs and tail vertebrae, as if the creature occupied the niche of eels, but eels with legs! This is another transitional form, adapting to marine life but retaining some of the features of land animals.

Tuatara family lizard living on land

If you look at the specimen in Room 13 with a magnifier and a light, you can SEE the place where the third eye was.

Horseshoe Crab
We can make up a story about our horseshoe that’s so sad that you will want to cry. Envision a little horseshoe crab bumbling around the shallow water eating little things from the mud. A wave crashed in and washed the crab out beyond the fringing reef of the Solnhofen sea. The crab landed on the bottom on his back (it swam top-side-down), struggled to turn over and made marks in the soft sediment. The crab was very tough but the environment did not provide any oxygen and the hypersaline water burned its gills. It tried moving, but things did not get better. The current rolled some empty ammonite shells on the bottom, making tire track-like track marks. The crab turned again, and things did not get better. The crisp mark made by its dragging tail became a dashed line on the bottom as it tried to swim out of there, but it could not. Finally, it stopped trying, and died.  Today, we can see the whole narrative on 30 feet of rock.

Normally, paleontologists do not find much evidence of squids because they do not have many hard parts.  The Solnhofen seabottom, however, preserves nearly everything. One fossil has a long cuttlebone-like internal shell stiffening its soft mantle tissue “wings” on the outside.

Another  of the squid fossils shows hooks on its arms – that show up as lines in the tentacle area – for snagging prey. It even has a modern relative that was given the extreme name, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, or Vampire Squid from Hell. It  dives thousands of feet down in the sea, is red in color, has huge blue eyes and use photophores to confuse preditors, but it is only a few inches long and eats shrimp.

Squid show its pen and soft parts

These are only a few of the more spectacular fossils on display in Archaeopteryx:  Icon of Evoloution. There are many reasons why Darwin loved the fossils from the Solnhofen. Take a walk with a fellow docent or download the guide to the hall from the Guild’s digital library and see what you can find. CAREFUL! If you show any interest, we will tell you enough things about the hall that you will become addicted and start giving tours.

Road Trip!

Many people come to our Museum for a visit.  In fact, last year, we had over 2.5 million visits. But have you ever had a museum come to you for a visit?  Well, the Houston Museum of Natural Science can do that, too!  The Museum has several different outreach programs where we bring specimens to students for some hands-on learning. 

Recently the Museum brought its El Paso Corporation Wildlife on Wheels to Kipp (Knowledge is Power Program) Dream Elementary School. In this picture, you can see some of the specimens used during our Reptiles and Amphibians topic. Snake skin, tortoise shells, fossil casts (center), coprolites and even caiman skin are valuable teaching tools and definitely more portable and safer than a large, live caiman!


In this picture below you can see some of the cutest kindergartners touching a Surinam Toad. They were very attentive and while some were nervous, most were very excited. They were also practicing safe touching technique: two finger touch, sitting “criss-cross-applesauce”, and as I learned that day, “with their spoons in their bowl” (meaning hands in their lap). The toad was pretty good too.


Here you see a Savannah Monitor behaving himself so that the children could touch him. If you have ever worked with a monitor, that is saying something! No hesitation here, these kindergartners were ready to touch the lizard even though he was big. Behind me in the photo is a good view of the table setup for that day. All of the specimens are something the children can touch like the crocodile skull, unless of course it is fragile enough to be in a jar or behind glass like the snake skeleton in the back.


At the end of the presentation, the children have the opportunity to come past the table and touch the specimen I had been using as part of the discussion. Here you can see the interest on their faces as they touch real crocodile teeth (without the risk of a bite!), a tortoise shell, and with only a little hesitation, fossilized dinosaur dung! This is often where I wonder what they are thinking: should I really touch poop, or would my head fit inside the croc’s mouth?

We don’t know who had more fun during El Paso Corporation’s Wildlife on Wheels…the students or the animals!  For more information on the Museum’s Outreach Programs, visit