The American crocodile’s pre-historic appearance has long struck fear into the minds and imaginations of zoo visitors and moviegoers.
But the croc’s prominently protruding fangs look far worse than its bite and the species actually is quite docile and co-exists very well around human populations.
Frank Mazzotti, an associate professor of ecology with the University of Florida’s team of “croc docs,” describes them as typically being grayish-green on top, with undersides that range from white to yellow.
Crocodiles have slender, triangular snouts with a protruding tooth on both sides of their mouths exposed at all times. The shape of their head allows for their eyes, ears and nostrils to remain above water when the rest of the crocodile is submerged.
“They are incredibly resistant and adaptable animals, mainly because of their biological make-up,” said Lindsey Hord, biologist and the crocodile response coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Crocodiles can be found in large, shallow bodies of water where salt and fresh water mix. They stick to tropical climates, and can be found in Caribbean islands, Central and South American coasts and South Florida.
In fact, most crocodiles in the United States live in an area south of Miami near Turkey Point and Homestead and into the Florida Keys.
“A 23-foot American crocodile was reported in South America,” Mazzotti said. “In Florida, males can grow to about 15 feet and females are from 8 to almost 13 feet long.”
Crocodiles are an essential part of their environment.
Joe Wasilewski, biologist and member of the Crocodiles Specialist Group dedicated to the active conservation of crocodiles and similar species, states that the loss of crocodiles would be detrimental to the ecosystem.
“Crocodiles build dams and holes that trap water,” Wasilewski said. “In times of drought these dams hold water to help other species survive and maintain the ecosystem.”
Although they look slightly similar, alligators are very different from crocodiles. Alligators are more common in Florida and are darker than crocodiles. But these animals also differ in temperament. Crocodiles are shyer and more secretive than their more aggressive gator counterparts.
“These animals are rarely found together; in fact, South Florida is the only place in the world where these animals exist concurrently,” Wasilewski said.
The temperature at which crocodile eggs are incubated determines the gender of the hatchlings. Generally, Mazzotti said, crocodiles mate during the first two months of the year and their mating ritual can last from a few minutes to several hours. Their courtship period may last for several days.
The main nesting site for the American crocodile in the United States is the Florida Bay around late April. Hord said females may lay between 20 to 60 eggs, which incubate for about 85 days and hatch from July to August.
The eggs cannot survive flooding for more than 12 hours, so the female crocodile usually builds the nests on elevated ground with high levels of salt in the water.
Baby crocodiles eat small fish, insects and at times crustaceans. As they grow older, they feed on larger fish, crabs, snakes, turtles and at times small mammals.
“They’re predators, so they’ll eat anything and everything,” Wasilewski said.
A young crocodile has many enemies. They can fall prey to raccoons, birds and other animals. Adult crocodiles are considered apex or alpha)predators. That means they are at the top of their food chain.
But they do face one serious enemy: man.
Wasilewski said humans cause the most harm because of environmental contamination but also because of traffic. Many crocodiles get hit by cars as they cross streets or highways. Those that survive their encounters with cars, Wasilewski said, often t do so without their tails.
But the American crocodile is of no immediate threat to humans. Hord said there are rarely conflicts between the two.
“As their numbers increase they are traveling,” Wasilewski said. “They are coastal animals so they keep moving to places where 50 to 100 years ago there were no homes. But now these are residential areas so they are having run-ins with people.”
When these run-ins occur, Hord is called to the scene. “I can remove them from the wild if they seem that they may be a threat,” Hord said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classifies the worldwide population of the American crocodile as an endangered species. In South Florida, however, the classification has been lowered to “threatened.”
“Population numbers are at historic levels, around 2,000 in South Florida, because Florida’s protection and management is much better than in other countries,” Wasilewski said.
Crocodiles, he said, “ are dangerous animals when not handled correctly.”
“But,” Wasilewski said, “we can co-exist.” #