The mere idea of crocodiles makes people shiver, bringing up images of diabolical, man-eating beasts. One of our most fearsome yet fascinating animals, watching videos of crocodiles lunging and tossing wildebeest around like dolls is spine-chilling. Nonetheless, crocodiles are still subject to the whims of the most horrifying predator yet: humans. The American crocodile was one such victim, dwindling to dangerously low numbers in the U.S. Fortunately, with a little help, they’ve convalesced. Read more about the American crocodile’s recovery below.
Despite their redoubtable reputations, American crocodiles have a softer side. They’re actually shy and elusive, and rarely attack humans. Crocodiles also regularly reach old age, in some cases living up to 100 years. Females guard their nests and help their hatchlings emerge, which is unusual since most reptiles provide no parental care at all. Interestingly, the temperature in the nest determines the sex of baby crocodiles. Females are both cold- and hot-blooded, being produced at low and high temperatures, while the moderate males are produced at intermediate temperatures.
American crocodiles are found in Central and South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. South Florida is the northernmost end of their range since hard freezes can kill crocodiles. This subtropical area is also notable for being the only place where American alligators and American crocodiles coexist.
Collapse of the Crocodile
Unfortunately, it hasn’t always been sunny here for crocodiles. While they were always rare in the state, by the 1970s, their numbers had fallen below 300. One reason stemmed from a formidable risk factor, humans, as their hides were quite valuable in the middle of the 20th century. Besides hunting, they faced other threats such as collection, road mortalities, human disturbance, and habitat loss.
Another major menace came from a lack of water. Historically, freshwater would continually feed Florida Bay from the Everglades, creating ideal estuarine conditions for crocodile nesting habitat. However, over the last century, freshwater flows into the bay have dwindled by more than half. Attempts to drain the Everglades and the resulting changes in water flows, levels, and timing were the cause. This lack of freshwater resulted in more frequent and intense periods of extremely high salinity in Florida Bay, which can harm the health of the ecosystem and the species living there. Finally, high salinity levels decrease juvenile crocodiles’ growth and survival.
The Crocodilian Cure
Luckily, the cause was also the cure, and we lent a helping hand for the American crocodile’s recovery. Crocodiles were listed as an endangered species in 1975, launching a series of recovery efforts to preserve their coastal, brackish, and saltwater habitats. In 1980, Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect critical habitat in the Florida Keys, and another coastal site run by Florida Power & Light, the Turkey Point Power Plant, now supports crocodile nesting habitat. Other efforts included limiting public access in protected areas, removing exotic vegetation, placing fencing and signs along roads, and discouraging illegal hunting and poaching. The recovering reptiles responded amazingly well, and their population climbed to an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 today (excluding hatchlings). While still only half the population size of the early 20th century, by 2007, their status had sufficiently improved to merit downlisting to threatened.
Are Crocodiles in the Clear?
Regrettably, American crocodiles aren’t completely cured yet. In the coastal Everglades, these reptiles continue to be threatened by habitat loss due to worsening environmental conditions and changes in Everglades hydrology. Fortunately, Everglades restoration should benefit the American crocodile’s recovery. The higher freshwater flows anticipated under restoration should alleviate high salinity levels in Florida Bay. This may be the best medicine for the survival of this forbidding, yet captivating, creature.
Coexisting with Crocodiles
If you find yourself in South Florida, here are a few pointers for living with crocodiles:
- Only swim in daylight hours in areas designated as safe, and never alone.
- Keep your pets away from crocodile-inhabited areas.
- Never feed a crocodile, since that creates animals that no longer fear humans, and it violates state law.
- Never taunt or touch a crocodile, or swim in areas with crocodiles.
- If you see a crocodile, do not approach it.
Read more about another recovering species here: the American flamingo.