photo by Bob Adams
Florida is not an easy place for people prone to anxiety.
The opening of the Atlantic hurricane season tomorrow is just an annual reminder. But we have all sorts of things to worry about down here year-round. Rip currents, for one. Tornadoes. Sharks. People with guns. People with guns confronting other people with guns, all of whom are determined to stand their ground. And, of course, invasive species, from lionfish to Burmese pythons.
But one thing we haven’t had to worry about – until now – is crocodiles. Oh, we have them. But the American crocodile is relatively scarce, confined to the state’s far southern regions. They are also relatively reclusive creatures that keep to themselves. Attacks are so rare that a couple bitten by an American crocodile in 2014 were believed to be the first ever crocodile bite victims in the United States.
American alligators are much more plentiful. They inhabit nearly every body of freshwater in the state, including golf course water hazards. They are much more dangerous to humans and, especially, to household pets than their American crocodile cousins. This is due to simple math as well as to temperament; the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission estimates there are about 1.3 million Florida gators, compared to between 1,500 and 2,000 crocodiles. While alligators can be dangerous to humans, most Floridians know enough about them to take the necessary precautions when approaching any sort of water.
But just as Nemo the clownfish learned that all drains eventually lead to the ocean, in Florida all pet stores lead to the Everglades. While we do not know for sure, it seems very likely that someone in the Sunshine State had the bright idea that Nile crocodiles would make great house pets.
So far, researchers at the University of Florida have identified only four Nile crocodiles swimming in our swamps, and have not identified a new individual since 2012. So Florida is not known to have a breeding population – yet. And crocodiles breed more slowly than do American alligators, meaning that it will be more difficult to establish a population in their new home.
But crocodiles do not only breed within their species; they can hybridize. Interbreeding between Cuban and American crocodiles is common enough to threaten the survival of the former. American crocodiles have also interbred with Morelet’s crocodile in the wild, researchers confirmed last year.
So the Nile invaders might well find love with our more placid native species. The result could be the best thing since the Africanized honeybee.
The comparison to so-called “killer bees” is not an idle one. Unlike the American version, Nile crocodiles can grow up to 20 feet long and can weigh up to 1,650 pounds. (National Geographic helpfully points out that many Nile crocodiles are longer than giraffes are tall.) These crocodiles also have a history of attacking humans. Between 2010 and 2014, Nile crocodiles were responsible for at least 480 attacks on people and 123 fatalities. Like all crocodiles, the Nile specimens are opportunistic predators, and their size creates a wide spread of viable opportunities. Nile crocodiles don’t care whether their fresh meat comes in the form of opossums, horses or Republicans – all of which we have in Florida in abundance.
So there is no reason to think that, sooner or later, we won’t discover a local population of man-eating crocodilians, whether Nile crocodiles, Nile-American crocodile hybrids or both. But, as I said, Florida is not a place for the anxious.
What, me worry? Nah. Like the Nile croc, I’m just here to enjoy a nice life in the sunshine. And as another migrant to Florida once said, it’s always 5 o’clock somewhere.