American Crocodiles

People have known about, and feared crocodiles for Centuries. Early peoples made all kind of stories about these giant reptiles with their long tails. Fables of fire breathing dragons and giant serpents that ate humans were probably based upon crocodiles and alligators. Yet stranger than these tales is the true tale of Crocodiles and Alligators.

There is even a strange tale behind the word crocodile, because the animals got their name from early Greek explorers whop first saw the animals on the banks of the Nile River in Egypt. The crocodiles reminded them of a small lizard called Krokodilos that lived back in Greece. The name means “pebble worm” because the lizard was long and thin and hid among the rocks. So the giant crocodiles got their name from a tiny lizard.

Lurid accounts of both Crocodiles and Alligators have both fascinated and horrified readers for as long as pen has been put to paper. Some truly monstrous crocodiles and alligators exist today. They are survivors of the age of reptiles and, so far, the age of man. Some men and women- like the crocodile clans of Papua New Guinea, the Aboriginal people of coastal Northern territories, the LakeRudolf Turkana, and certain field biologists and zoomen – intimately share their lives with these behemoths. Some of these relationships are by choice, while others are imposed at birth.

Reference to Crocodiles are found in prehistoric artwork, earliest writings, and the works of pliny and Aristotle, yet even today we know little of the remarkable history of these fascinating reptiles. Alligators and crocodiles figure prominently in early accounts of exploration and adventure. There is no doubt they played an important role in the lives of tribal peoples, explorers, and settlers living along the banks of rivers and lakes in the tropics.

Living species of Crocodilians are found throughout the tropical and subtropical areas of the world in aquatic habitats and vary in size from the infamous “man-eating” species of the Pacific and Africa to the innocuous Dwarf Crocodile of the forests of Central Africa. There is much about crocodiles that people don’t know, yet with the help of this website, you should be on your way to becoming a crocodile expert!

Alligators Attacks in Florida

Early explores in Florida regarded the American Alligators as a threat to life and property, and it is claimed that alligators were a constant threat to the Indians who kept guard against them night and day. William Bartram, an explorer, described an encounter with three larger alligators that attacked his boat while he was exploring on the St. John’s River in the early 1790s. R.L. Ditmars reported in 1953 that “from a wave of a extermination (by the mid 1900s) the alligator has retreated into more secluded swamps and bayous …(and now) evinces great timidity toward man …so great is the reptile’s fear of man that one can safely go bathing in waters inhabited by alligators”. There are, however, no scientific reports documenting alligator attacks before 1977 although the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission has collected newspaper clippings on attacks as far back as 1948.

Even though early records are not as good as they are today, it is evident that alligator attacks in Florida increased from the late 1960s until the mid- 1970s. There were as many as 14 attacks reported each year during the early 1970s and six known human fatalities have been documented since 1973. In addition, there have been several other cases where serious injuries were inflicted on the victim. In most cases, however, the injuries inflicted were relatively minor.

From the late 1960s (when alligator populations were lowest) until the early 1970s alligator numbers increased significantly in Florida.
During this period the state also experienced phenomenal human population growth with much of the subsequent development occurring adjacent to wetland areas. The problem of conflicts between humans and alligators was well publicized during this time and almost any episode involving alligators and people was covered in the news media. Almost all alligator attacks within the state were also reported to the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, which investigated each reported attack.

Consequently, from the mid- 1970s there are good records of alligators attack in Florida. Concurrent with these events, an intensive alligator research program was initiated by the state, which included some effort to evaluate attack behavior.
The first document fatality from an attack in Florida occurred in August 1973 when a 16 – year – old girl was killed while swimming with her father in Sarasota Count, Florida. It was during this period ( 1968 – 73) that complaints about alligators increased and , by 1976, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission was receiving at least 5,000 complaints each year about nuisance alligators, which were perceived as a threat to life or property. In response to this, the Commission initiated a program allowing private trappers to harvest alligators that were reported as nuisance animals by the public. This program targeted many potential problem animals and resulted in the removal of approximately 2,000 alligators each year. The complaint rate and the number of animals harvested have now stabilized. The number of attacks also appeared to have stabilized until 1986 when a near record of 13 occurred.

Recently there were two very dramatic fatal attacks. A scuba diver was killed in a popular tourist area in North Florida in 1987 and a small child was killed by an alligator close to a residential area in South Florida in 1988. When such incidents occur the complaint rate increases dramatically.

Why do Alligators Attack Humans?

The alligator is a primitive and unpredictable predator, and any serious effort to answer the question of why alligators attack must contain much speculation. There is ample evidence that alligators are able and willing, under some circumstances, to utilize human victims for food. The facts surrounding every serious reported attack in Florida since 1973 suggest that, in every case were it was possible to ascertain, the victim was unaware of the alligator’s presence until last minute or, more usually, until the animal had actually attacked. In every case, the victim had been, at least partially, in the water with the alligator. It appears that in most serious attacks the victim was actually stalked, suggesting that the aggression was hunger motivated. Yet, when one considers the thousands of contacts between alligators and people that occur each day without incident, it would appear that such behavior is extremely rare.

Food – habit studies demonstrate that alligators are largely fish eaters but significant numbers of amphibians, birds, and small mammals also appear in their diet. There is little evidence that alligators take animals as large as humans on a regular basis. However, they are very opportunistic and will take whatever they are capable of catching if they find it in their habitat. They commonly take calves on Florida ranches and dogs of all sizes; they have also been observed taking large swine of up to 45 kilograms (100 pounds) in weigh and large goats. Humans obviously fall into a prey- size class that very large alligators are capable of taking.

Analysis of information suggests that younger and / or smaller humans are more likely to be a target.

It is commonly reported in the news media that possible reasons for alligator attacks are female nest defense. Females do, on occasion, defend their nest from intruders and may behave defensively when their young are disturbed but only a small percentage of females appear to do so and the defense is generally short – lived, particularly if the aggressive female is struck across the snout with a stout stick. (On rare occasions I have seen females so defensive that I Would leave the nest site and once I had a very aggressive female come into the airboat with me as I retreated from her nest.) Usually the female provides plenty of warning, with an obvious display of defensive behavior such as mouth gaping and hissing, giving the prudent person time to retreat.

Aggressive displays by males are less common and much harder to categorize. Large males have been seen to assume an apparently defensive posture against low – flying helicopters and sometimes inflate their bodies with tails arched out of the water in aggressive displays when small boats approach them. Even if the animal actually attacked, therefore, the obvious display would have provided plenty of time for retreat.

One of the common questions raised is whether large alligators in frequent contact with people become more dangerous. Alligators were persecuted in Florida from early settlement until the late 1960s. They were commercially hunted with little effective regulation on harvest until 1969 when a United State federal law (the Lacey Act) was amended. This was the first effective control of the illegal taking of alligators. In 1973 the Endangered Species Act was passed in the United States and, as result of both laws, alligators were afforded greater protection than they had ever previously received. The population response was immediate but, in retrospect, it is clear in addition to real population increases, some of the perceived increase was in fact due to the alligators become more visible as a result of less persecution.

Based on scientists’ experience of capturing animals for research purposes and running managed hunts, it is apparent that alligators become very wary when harassed but, in those locations where large alligators live unmolested adjacent to humans, it is not common to see them attempt to escape at mere presence of humans. Under these circumstances one must speculate that large unmolested animals may be more dangerous than those that show fear of humans. There are cases where large alligators are actually fed by people on regular basis around fishing camps, public parks and lakes. This is often put forward as cause for attacks and, although no such cases have been documented, one must conclude that it has the potential to be a contributing factor.

How can you tell the difference between alligators and crocodiles?

People often get alligators and crocodiles mixed up and it can be hard to tell them apart. It’s easier when you see them together.

They are the same shape, but alligators have broader, shorter snouts than most crocodiles. Their skin is darker, too, and looks black when wet.

In many ways, alligators and crocodiles are alike. Still, there are differences.

Scientists separate them according to differences in their skulls, scales, and teeth.

The easiest way to tell one from the other is by looking at their jaws. When a crocodile’s jaws are closed, the big forth tooth on each side of the lower jaw fits into a special notch in the upper jaw. This gives the crocodile a toothy grin. An alligator’s fourth tooth fits into holes in the upper jaw and can’t be seen when its mouth is closed.

Another clue is how many lower teeth stick out when the reptile closes its mouth.

When an alligator’s mouth is closed, you can see only a few, if any, lower teeth. That is because the alligator’s lower teeth fit and close inside its upper teeth. On a crocodile, however, the upper and lower teeth are more or less in line. As a result, when a crocodile’s mouth is closed, its lower teeth do stay in view, especially the large tooth that’s fourth from the front on each side of its mouth. When an alligator’s mouth is closed, these large lower front teeth aren’t visible.

The crocodile’s skull and jaws are narrower than the alligator’s. When its jaws are shut, it has more teeth sticking out than an alligator does.

Another differences between crocodiles and alligators is their choice of homes. Many species of crocodiles live in salt water. On other hand, alligators are freshwater reptiles. They rarely swim into salt water.

The only area in the United States where both alligators and crocodiles live is the southern tip of Florida. The American crocodile lives in the United States, Central America, and South America.

The American crocodile is large. It probably grows to twenty feet in length.

You will probably never see a wild crocodile. They are rare and shy. Of the fifteen species of crocodiles in the world only three kinds have been known to kill people. They are the African Nile crocodile, the saltwater crocodile of Australia, and the mugger crocodile of Southeast Asia.

There are also differences in behavior and habitat, the type of area an animal naturally lives in. Although American crocodiles are shy animals, alligators are not. Alligators often have contact with people. When alligators become used to people, they lose fear of them. Fearless alligators can be very dangerous to people.

Alligators are not as active as crocodiles. In fact they appear to be slow, sleepy animals. They are usually seen floating quietly in the water or resting on a muddy shore.

The skulls tell the story. An alligator skull (left) shows a broad snout; a crocodile skull (right) has a narrow, pointed one. But the only place you’d find crocodiles and alligators actually living together is in southernmost part of Florida.