Sharks and gators sometimes go tooth-to-tooth along the Florida coast
MELBOURNE, Fla. – At NASA's Kennedy Space Center, the cradle of man's most sophisticated technological feats, something beastly, reptilian, primal in nature lurks motionless among the salt marsh and mangrove swamps.
Nearby, another primitive creature glides through the shallows, its pointed tail propelling the ocean's apex predator toward a brutal Darwinian dance in which the most powerful jaw, quickest strike and the thickest skin often wins this war: shark versus gator.
The two seldom meet. When they do, their dance is no waltz in the national park. It can get ugly – and bloody – real quick at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a 140,000 acre overlay of the Kennedy Space Center.
When these strangers dance, both see red, in tooth and claw.
America's space portal is where king of the sea and the boss of the swamp sometimes meet and chomp it out.
Here, gators usually win. But do sharks ever one-up and gobble down a gator?
"I'm sure they would," said Eric Reyier, a fisheries biologist at Kennedy Space Center's Ecological Program and Integrated Mission Support Services. "Both alligators and sharks eat whatever they can."
At times, that's each other.
Shark-gator run-ins are relatively rare, say researchers. Alligators tend to hang out in semi-salty swamps at Merritt Island refuge, while sharks prefer the coastal waters where we swim.
"These interactions are very hard to capture," said Russell Lowers, a wildlife biologist with Integrated Mission Support Services.
But these researchers do capture them, in photos, historical records, and by pumping gator guts to find evidence the top-dog reptile makes mince meat of sharks. It's not easy to find. Gator guts are so acidic, all but teeth and scales are gone within days.
They have found evidence that gators eat nurse sharks, lemon sharks, bonnetheads and rays, a cousin species to sharks.
"It seems to be not very frequent but it's happening," said James Nifong, research biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, Mississippi."We don't really know the frequency of this. There's not a lot of people pumping alligator stomachs and looking at something like this."
Nurse and bonnethead sharks that live mostly sedentary lives among the space center's shallows are sitting ducks for voracious, alert alligators. "The shark just bumps into them, and there you go," Nifong said.
A stingray glides by — forget about it. Nifong finds stingray barbs lodged in gator necks.
But who remains swimming is not always so cut and dry when larger sharks enter the fray. Nifong and Lowers documented recent and historical accounts of shark-gator clashes, publishing their findings in the journal BioOne.
"And with no clear winners," Reyier notes. "That would have been a sight to see for sure."
They dug up an October 1887 edition of a sports magazine called the Fish Gazette, which describes a brutal alligator-shark brawl when gale force winds and rain made fresh and salt water worlds collide. According to the write-up, a Florida correspondent of the New York Sun gives "a curious account" of the combat between hundreds of the two prehistoric predators at Jupiter Inlet. Heavy eastern gales brought shoals of black bass from freshwater to Jupiter's coastal waters.
"Solid acres of salt-water fishes piled into the bight of the inlet, and fought for the sea-water that oozed through the sand at high tide. The alligators of the Everglades got wind of what was going on. They came down the Allokehatchieand Lakeworth Creek in scores, and attacked the fish dammed in the bight.
"The slaughter was astonishing," the account continued, with waters that turned to blood, carpeted with dead fish and an estimated 500 alligators swarming the scene.
"The beach was black with their mailed bodies. At night their muttered thunder fairly shook the foundation of the lighthouse."
Then one day a north wind arose, backing up water in the inlet. When waters rose further from wind and rains, fresh water burst through the sandy barrier, "and the pent up waters were roaring and rising to the sea. The army of alligators was caught in the flood and carried outside. A terrific fight ensued. The neap-tide had brought hundreds of enormous sharks to the coast."
The sharks, sensing the blood-laden fresh water, made for the inlet. "Frantic after their enforced fasting during the storm they attacked the alligators."
The noise of the combat eclipsed the ocean's roar.
The article cites an eyewitness, the son of a Judge Paine, of Fort Capron, who said he saw sharks and alligators "rise on the crest of the waves and fight like dogs."
The losers floated in belly-up, rolling ashore in the waves.
For days carcasses drifted ashore: headless, tail-less gators, sharks nearly bitten in half.
The Gulf Stream swept the dead ashore to beaches as far north as Cape Malabar, more than 80 miles away. Clouds of vultures swarmed the shores. "Mr. Paine fancies that the sharks were two active for the alligators, but others say that the percentages of bodies on the beach indicated that the weight of the metal was in favor of the iron-clad reptiles."
Another account they found in The Palatka Daily News in May 1884 describes a roughly 10-foot-long shark and seven-foot-long gator near Pilot Cove, Florida. It didn't go so well for the gator: After multiple tries, the shark finally landed the moral bite to the gator's thoracic region, severing the gator in two parts, one of which the shark promptly wolfed down.
An 1888 account Nifong and Lowers found by unknown authors describes a larger-than-life war between several gators and sharks in the Indian River Lagoon near Titusville. One gator was a 15-footer — probably an exaggeration, Nifong and Lowers conclude.
The sharks bit off gators' forelimbs and parts of their tails. Several sharks and gators died.
Some seem tall tales, spectacular accounts more akin to the 1800s version of "fake news?"
"You have to take some of it with a grain of salt," Nifong said. But, he says, "Just given that we found multiple records of it in multiple occasions," lends some credibility to the accounts.
"I think in any situation it comes to the size differential between the individual alligator and shark," Nifong said. "Larger individual will always have the advantage."
There isn't enough data yet to prove which predator consumes the other more often, he says.
But at the Kennedy Space Center, gators reign supreme.
"At KSC there are fewer large sharks as compared to alligators, at least in the Upper regions of the estuary," Nifong added, "so simply based on numbers I would say there is a greater potential for alligators to consume more sharks then the reverse, but without proper investigation it's a best guess."
But which owns the Indian River Lagoon (IRL) at large?
Sorry sharks, you lose there too.
"On the sharks vs. gators, these days large sharks aren’t as frequent in the IRL system so yes alligators probably have the advantage," Reyier said. "But alligators aren’t common in the lagoon anymore either except in a few places like KSC. So the chances of interaction are reduced compared to historically. These days gators vs. stingrays is much more common."
Gator-ray run-ins also are difficult to witness.
But why does NASA even care?
Knowledge of which wildlife eat what at the space center helps refuge rangers figure out how best to manage federally protected species and their habitats there and gives them the knowledge base needed when seeking permits for new projects or activities at the space center that might impact wildlife.
"It's more about understanding about how those alligators are using that habitat," Nifong said.
NASA wants to know where sharks go, too. Just offshore of where NASA and SpaceX blast off toward the stars, Reyier surgically inserts transmitters the size of pen caps underneath sharks' tough, white underbellies, sews the wounds shut and releases the apex predators
The "pings" the transmitters emit reveal where sharks roam.
He and fellow researchers have a new project using the Liquid Robotics Wave Glider, a solar robot that autonomously surveys offshore of Cape Canaveral. It seeks tagged sharks and other fish, underwater biological sounds and ocean conditions.
The Wave Glider has even survived shark attacks.
Some gators don't survive them. But a shark gobbling down a gator isn't something most are likely to witness in their lifetime.
"You'd have to be real lucky to see that," Reyier said.
Follow Jim Waymer on Twitter: @JWayEnviro