Long before I became interested in snorkeling, history or writing I was a nut for all things reptile. Growing up my bedroom was filled with 10-gallon aquariums housing an assortment of snakes, lizards and geckos -- several species of which I can now spot in the front yard here at home.
While the fishing and diving are world-class here in the Florida Keys, these islands are surprisingly rich in herpetological fauna, and for a kid who grew up with snakes and lizards on the brain, living here is an absolute dream for reasons I never could have imagined.
Turtles, terrestrial and marine, skinks, geckos, snakes and lizards are all indigenous creatures. What is also both surprising and impressive is the list of invasive reptiles that have slowly crept onto the islands. To illustrate the point, when I drag my trashcans to the side of the street every Monday and Thursday, I will likely see three species of gecko: tokay geckos from Asia (invasive), Madagascar day geckos from Africa (invasive and the model for the Geico Insurance spokes-reptile), and the smallest lizard found in North America, the reef gecko (indigenous) -- they like to hunt for tiny insects underneath my trashcans.
While people complain about the green iguanas eating garden flowers and pooping on their decks and boats, the reptile that seems to cause the most discourse amongst the community is not the iguana or the invasive python slithering loose in the Everglades, but a reptile that has been calling the Florida Keys home for as long as these islands have been here <\#209> the American crocodile.
Like Florida's official state reptile, the American alligator, the American crocodile was once hunted to near extinction in Florida. American crocodiles naturally occur in Central America, the northern parts of South America, and North America (largely South Florida).
Fortunately, like the alligator, crocodile populations have begun to reassert themselves. The best possible news is that while the crocodile was added to the endangered species list in 1975 (established by the Endangered Species Act of 1973), it has since been upgraded to merely threatened.
Where mere hundreds of the reptiles could be found in Florida waters only a decade ago, over 2,000 crocodiles are calling Florida home today. Now, what needs to be made excessively clear is that while American crocodiles live in brackish and sometimes salty water, these crocodilians are nothing like their fearsome man-eating cousins -- the Nile crocodile, or the largest of all the crocodilians, Australia's saltwater crocodile.
In fact, the American crocodile is considered a shy, reclusive reptile with no interest in people.
American crocodiles are capable of living between 60 and 70 years and can grow to as much as 15 feet in length. They have also begun to reclaim their natural habitat. As such, crocodiles have been showing up in canals and sunning themselves on boat ramps on and around Key Largo, Plantation Key and the Matecumbes; in recent years crocodiles have been spotted as far north as Tampa and as far south as the Dry Tortugas, some 70 miles southwest of the southernmost city, Key West.
The interesting twist to the story involving the recovery of the American crocodile is that they have benefited from human construction. The first example is the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station. The power plant's 150-miles of cooling canals provide ideal water temperatures for the crocodiles year round as well as excellent breeding grounds. During nesting season, the facility's crocodile expert checks the nests and tags each hatchling with AviChip technology for tracking purposes.
The other man-made structure benefiting the crocodile is located closer to home and can be found within the boundaries of the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1980, the refuge encompasses 6,700 acres of prime mangrove estuaries that includes 650 acres of open water. Located within the refuge are the failed remains of a residential development.
Mostly the remains consist of forgotten canals that would have connected the project to the Atlantic. The debris piled up like berms along the edges of the canal system also provide ideal nesting grounds for crocodiles.
An interesting note about nesting crocodiles (and alligators, too) is that crocodilian gender is largely determined by temperature. Nests incubated at temperatures between 88-91 degrees will produce mostly male offspring, while nests incubated below 88 degrees will produce mostly female offspring. Perhaps most remarkable, however, is the fact that the tiny little spot on the globe that is South Florida and the Florida Keys is the only place in the entire world where alligators and crocodiles co-exist!
Crocodiles are a growing environmental success story and with a little bit of luck the native crocodile population will again one day spread throughout the Keys. Rule number one about living with crocodiles: do not feed them. It causes them to lose their natural fear of people.
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.