Rockin’ Crocs in the Sandbox

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Most people are aware that we have alligators in Florida.  (Believe it or not, there are people who have NEVER seen one, and live here.  I think those people likely never leave their house.)  We have an estimated one to two million gators in Florida alone, though they are found throughout the Southeastern U.S.  If that sounds like too many gators, consider that there are over 18 MILLION humans who also live in the state, then ponder that ratio to figure out who’s “winning.”  What many people DON’T know is that we have crocodiles, too.  “Crocodiles?” you say. “Here?”  Yes, yes, we do.  South Florida is the only place on Earth where you will find alligators and crocodiles in the same habitat.  Granted, crocs can live in salt water, and alligators need to live in fresh water, but much of the coastal area in South Florida is brackish water–a mixture of fresh and salt water–due to the watershed.  Here, our native crocodile is the American crocodile; Crocodylus acutus.  While both all crocodilian species around the globe, the American alligator is plentiful enough to have a hunting season,  American crocodiles are considered “threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  Believe it or not, this is progress for a species that was listed as “critically endangered” a mere 20-30 years ago.

Everglades NP-8994

South Florida is at the northernmost tip of this species’ range.  Our winters get too cold for the crocs to venture much farther north than SoFlo, especially when a freeze occurs.  The hard freezes we had a few years ago did quite a number on tropical marine animal populations, specifically sea turtles, manatees, and yes, crocodiles.  The rest of the population is spread throughout Central and South America, where a freeze is of no concern, but flooding due to storm surge from hurricanes could pose a threat to unhatched eggs buried in the sand bank.  {Crocodylus acutus has been know to hybridize with other crocodile species, such as the Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer).}

But they can be found in the coastal areas among this southernmost tip of the mainland, swimming, feeding, basking, and procreating among the prop roots of the red mangrove and muddy banks.  Most often they are seen by boaters, who have a distinct advantage over those of  us on foot who try and navigate through the twisting mangrove islands.  They can be seen near marinas in Fort Lauderdale, Key Biscayne, Key Largo, and Flamingo, among other places, but it’s basically a crap shoot if you make a specific trip to find one.  Captiva boasted one for years, but I understand one of those hard freezes killed it, along with the big male who was a frequenter of the Flamingo Marina.  Luckily, with their population reoccupying more and more of their former range, new crocs take the place of those who pass on, as happens with every species.

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Everglades Crocodile Sunset-2

I was fortunate to be able to accompany biologist Joe Wasilewski on a crocodile survey in 2006 for my first views of these magnificent creatures, and though I had been back to South Florida since then, I never could seem to time my visits and locations to coincide with the crocs for either decent viewing or decent photos (none of these images were made on the ’06 trip, by the way).

This particular crocodile, who is pictured above and at the top of this post, was observed and photographed at Flamingo, in Everglades National Park.  Due to its size, I believe it is possibly a male, and thus refer to it as “he.”  (Male crocodilians typically grow larger than females.)  There were one or two other crocodiles visible in this same canal, which is a direct waterway into Biscayne Bay.  The croc pictured in the middle was photographed the same afternoon, but I’m not sure if it is the same animal that is in the other two images.  Like most predators, they are largely misunderstood; if you have never seen an American crocodile in the wild, let me be the one to tell you:  you’re missing out.  There is something incredible about Florida’s crocodiles.  Many people refer to it as “something primal,” but that is not the adjective I would use.  I would say majestic, awe-inspiring, exciting.  I feel incredibly lucky, and in a way, grateful, to be able to observe, photograph, and admire an animal so unique and vital to our ecosystem.  And they rock, in their own crocodilian ways.

If you want to know more……

I have no connection to it, but some great information regarding natural history and conservation efforts for the American crocodile can be found by following this link:

http://crocdoc.ifas.ufl.edu/publications/posters/crocodileecologyconservation/

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