Rare American crocodiles living on Sanibel

Chad Gillis
The News-Press
A rare American crocodile has emerged from the waters surrounding Cape Coral in recent days.
Florida is the only place in the world where crocodiles and alligators exist in the same ecosystem.
Crocodiles are extremely rare in Lee County waters. Only a few have been documented in recent decades.
Males in the wild typically grow to 14 feet, according to the National Park Service. These are not to be confused with Nile and saltwater crocodiles found in Africa and Australia. Those species are much more dangerous and aggressive.
While still dangerous (as all wildlife is), American crocodiles are known for their shy, reclusive nature.
FloridaÕs nesting crocodiles are found mostly near the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station in Miami, where warm-water discharges provide ideal nesting conditions.

See you later alligator. After awhile crocodile.

That playground saying and 1950s song lyric is common around the nation, but there's only one place in the natural world where that conversation could actually happen.

The historic Everglades is the one place where the crocodile could see the alligator later and the alligator could see the crocodile after awhile.

"This is the only place in the world where you can find both alligators and crocodiles of any species," said Frank Mazzotti, a crocodile expert at the University of Florida. "The American alligator is at the southern end of its range in southern Florida where the American crocodile is at the northern end of its range in southern Florida."

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Florida is known for its giant reptiles, ancient critters that roam the rivers, lakes and swamps and strike fear in the hearts and minds of many. 

And while nearly everyone knows about the American alligator, fewer know about its less glamorized but equally-impressive cousin, the American crocodile. 

An American crocodile suns itself at the Coral Cove condos in Cape Coral. Florida is the only place in the world where crocodiles and alligators coexist.

Their native range is from the Sanibel area south to Everglades National Park and then north along the east coast to the Jupiter area. 

Holly Milbrandt, a biologist for the City of Sanibel, and others know of two female crocodiles that live on Sanibel. 

Both are tagged, and one was relocated to J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel in 2010 after the death of another female that lived on the island for decades. 

"Prior to 2010 there had been a female crocodile that was first observed in Ding Darling around 1995, and she was observed regularly and spent most of her time it seemed in the refuge," Milbrandt said. "So most of the folks who did the tour along Wildlife Drive  would be able to see her and photograph her. She was really quite docile and seemed to be accustomed to having people in the vicinity."

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The giant reptiles have also been reported in Cape Coral in recent years. 

Both females that live on the island have marked tails and are tagged, one red and one green. 

"The one with the green tag had been captured in residential areas in Naples and was relocated (in Collier County) and eventually came here," Milbrandt said. 

Crocodiles can travel far distances. 

Mazzotti said a male tagged near the Turkey Point power plant in the Miami area was later documented in Tampa Bay. 

Found in South Florida, Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean, the American crocodile can grow to 15 feet, although they tend to be smaller at the extremes of their range. 

They live primarily in saltwater habitats like ponds, mangrove forests and coastal creeks.  

Sometimes confused with the much larger and more aggressive crocodiles found in Australia, Africa and southeast Asia, the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) is relatively docile and shy. 

"Because they are more likely to be found in saltwater people refer to them as saltwater crocodile, and that’s a different species of crocodile," Milbrandt said. 

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A female American crocodile at Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs opens its mouth wide. Crocodiles have a slimmer, narrower snout than do American alligators.

Just how long these two crocodiles will stay on Sanibel is unknown, but it's almost certain neither will lay viable eggs anytime soon. 

"I don’t think there’s any active reproduction," said Jeremy Conrad, who works at Ding Darling and knows of the two females. "I’d assume there’s not any reproductive nesting. Sometimes females will lay sort of a false nest. They’ll get rid of the eggs, but they’re not fertile." 

Milbrandt said at least one of the females has laid nests in the past. 

"They do exhibit nesting behavior even if males aren’t around," she said. "The regular at Ding Darling, people referred to her as Wilma and she routinely nested but never had a fertile clutch of eggs. She’d nest almost annually. Sometimes she’d lay her nest in someone’s front yard."

Mazzotti said crocodiles living in Rookery Bay near Naples may have an odd history. 

Some people think a group of females were released there intentionally during the 1970s, when some feared the species would become extinct. 

"Nobody really knows how the population in Rookery Bay got started but males tend to disperse much more than females," Mazzotti said. "And all the females at Rookery Bay seem to be the same age and size." 

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Unsuccessful nests are often found in Rookery Bay, Mazzotti said, because there doesn't appear to be a male living in the area. 

The chances of seeing a crocodile in the wild are long. 

If you see a 10-foot reptile with a long tail and lots of teeth, it's probably an alligator as there are upwards of 2 million living in the Sunshine State. 

But there are only 1,500 or so crocodiles, which are listed as endangered by the federal government and threatened by the state.

So how do you tell them apart? 

"Alligators are really dark brown to black in color where as the crocodile will be more greenish-gray," Milbrandt said. "Some of the other distinguishing characteristics have to do with the shape of their head. The crocodile head is much more narrow at the end of the snout and tapers in and is more triangular and the alligator is much more broad and rounded snout. It’s almost the same width from the eyes all the way to the snout."

There's only one account of a crocodile biting a human being, and that happened in Coral Gables in 2014. 

Two men were swimming in a canal known to have crocodiles. The crocodile that bit one man was named "Poncho," according to news reports. 

Other than that, the reclusive critters seem to be wary of humans. 

"Don’t get drunk and jump into a canal on top of a crocodile at 2:30 in the morning," Mazzotti said of the only crocodile attack on record. 

Connect with this reporter: Chad Gillis on Twitter. 

Just the facts

American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus)

►Found in South Florida, Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean.

►Nesting occurs on well-drained, sandy areas near salt or brackish water. Females begin building nests in March and typically lay about 40 eggs in late April or early May. They return in July or August to dig up the nest and sometimes transport the hatchlings to the water. 

►Like alligators, crocodiles control their body temperature by basking in the sun or moving to a cool, shaded area. Crocodiles sometimes lay with their mouths open, which is not a sign of aggression. 

►Will eat almost anything that moves. Hatchlings and young crocodiles feed on small fish, snails and insects while adults eat fish, crabs, turtles, snakes and small mammals. 

►Listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1975. 

►State and federal laws prohibits killing, harassing and possessing crocodiles. 

Sources: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, University of Florida, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service