Written by Taylor Lodge, Environmental Education Conservation Associate
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s boat tours are famous for their unique experiences on the water. Lately, tours have been getting extra attention due to a special guest that can be found basking in the sun along the shore in the brackish water.
Several Conservancy staff members and volunteers looked at an original picture captured by boat riders in order to properly identify this magnificent creature, and determined it was a crocodile. South Florida is the only place in the world where both crocodiles and alligators live side by side. Due to the similarities between the species, it’s not uncommon to get them confused. Both animals have four short, stocky webbed feet, an elongated snout, and can reach up to a whopping 15 feet in length and weigh up to 842 pounds! Interestingly, crocodiles and alligators behave in very similar ways. When it’s nice out they can be found basking in the sun to absorb heat, because they are ectothermic and cannot regulate their own body temperature. While in the water they relax with the tops of their heads sticking out of the surface, because they have sensors on their heads that detect pressure caused by prey moving in the water. These sensors and the placement of the eyes and nostrils on top of their head allows them to effectively hunt while being almost completely submerged, making them excellent predators. In 1975 poaching and habitat loss led to population declines that caused the American crocodile to be placed on the federally threatened list in Florida. However, due to the similarities between the American crocodiles and American alligators, they are both federally protected in the state of Florida.
Since crocodiles have been placed on the list their population has thrived and increased to over 2,000 individuals! This is a very promising number BUT, it’s not the only population we see increasing in Florida. Since 1970, the human population has increased to 14 million! More people and more crocodiles means more chances to spot one of these creatures while out and about!
One method people use to distinguish between the two species is what kind of water they live in. Crocodiles tend to live in brackish and salt water while alligators live in fresh water. The water surrounding the Conservancy is brackish or, a mix of freshwater and saltwater, which means this method of identification isn’t the most reliable. Crocodiles have specialized glands that secrete a salty solution that helps them maintain their body’s salt and water balance. This solution allows them to excrete extra salt without losing too much water. In contrast, alligators do not have this gland so they are unable to stay in saltwater for an extended period of time.
So who cares if we had a crocodile in out waters near the Conservancy? WE do! Crocodiles and alligators are apex predators, fulfilling a critical role at the top of the food chain in South Florida. Without apex predators we would have an overabundance of their prey, followed by similar imbalances and effects down the food chain. This then can change many essential interactions within our Florida ecosystems, whether food chain related or otherwise.
Crocodiles and alligators are a big deal around here and an important part of the ecosystem. The next time you find yourself at the Conservancy, take a ride on one of our boat tours included with your admission for a chance to see one in the wild! Remember if you come across an alligator or a crocodile in the wild, keep your distance and do not feed them.