A word about the word: A “predator,” in biological terms, is an animal who kills another to eat it. Although I kill both cows and cockroaches, I am a predator only of cows. I, in turn, might be killed either by a whitetip shark or bad sushi, but only one of those qualifies as a predator.
The human’s peak predator is probably the crocodile. The exact number of humans that crocs eat each year is hard to pin down, because they tend to hunt in undeveloped areas where humans don’t keep detailed records. Human prey is a good choice for crocs. Our species is big enough to make a hearty meal but fee of sharp horns, claws, and teeth, and small enough to subdue quickly. As with the other midsize animals they catch, crocs reduce human prey to bite-size pieces by biting onto a limb and rolling their entire bodies in the water until the twisted part tears free. A whole flock of crocks can feed on a single kill, with each animal latching onto a different piece and rolling until the prey disintegrates. It’s estimated they eat thousands of humans a year.
The crocodile isn’t the only reptile to view humans as prey. The alligator is another, and so is the Komodo dragon. Each can kill and eat humans of any size, but compared to crocodiles neither puts much of a dent in the human horde. And then there are the fishes, sharks to be specific. Most sharks don’t consider humans especially palatable. They might bite one if they mistake it for a flailing fish or seal, but they don’t seek humans out. A few species, however–oceanic whitetip, great white, tiger, and bull–are happy to harvest humans. I have seen the whitetips in action, and it’s a haunting phenomenon…
I recently encountered an insightful little piece of work at a conference. In the back of a room full of research summarized on large posters stood a psychologist from Pennsylvania State University. His poster was deceptively simple but profound: He had combed the globe for stories of “wild beast attacks man.” Studying 173 incidents, he concluded that humans with no tool in hand died two-thirds of the time, but those with a defensive device of any sort died only half the time. That’s a big difference in survival rates. It’s the kind of difference that can shove evolution rapidly in a new direction–an armed direction. For what it’s worth, chimpanzees also use tools against snakes and other frightful animals.