The American Crocodile in Florida

A Close-up View of an American Crocodile in the water in Florida's Everglades
What a croc!

It surprises a lot of people to learn there are American crocodiles in Florida. Not regular old alligators...we have lots of those. I'm talking honest-to-goodness, genuine pointy-snouted crocodiles.

What we have here in the Sunshine State is known by scientists as Crocodylus acutus. That's a combination of Greek and Latin meaning "sharp-pointed pebble worm." Go figure.

The Current Croc Situation in Florida

Today, about 2,000 of these leftover dinosaurs prowl the state's southernmost reaches, mostly from Biscayne Bay and the upper Keys to Cape Sable and around the west coast up to Sanibel Island.

Their numbers are up from less than 400 in the mid 1970s when they were listed and protected as an endangered species.

Expanding Range

As the Florida croc population increases, their range expands. Recently, according to a St. Pete Times article by Jeff Klinkenberg they've been seen as far north as Palm Beach on the east coast and up to Tampa Bay on the west coast.

Crocodile Habitat and Nesting

Unlike alligators which prefer fresh water, crocodiles inhabit primarily brackish or saltwater estuaries. They like south Florida's mangrove swamps, especially those coves and creeks where the waters are deeper, well protected, and not too salty.

A man sits in a kayak in a small mangrove channel on Cape Sable
Cape Sable in Everglades National Park-- A Good Place for Crocodiles

While alligators are found throughout Florida, crocodiles are limited in Florida to the state's southernmost regions because they are more susceptible to cold than are alligators. Crocodiles can't tolerate temperatures less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Crocodile nests are often just holes in the side of a marl bank or on a beach. They lay about from 8 to 60 eggs, which hatch in about 90 days, in late July to early August.

Close Encounter

Once on a kayak trip to East Cape on Cape Sable, my friend and I decided to explore the saltwater marshes near Lake Ingraham. We ventured up the East Cape canal, making a turn to the west up one of the little waterways emptying into the canal. In the mud flats at low tide, we saw crocodile slides--those belly imprints in the mud revealing where crocodiles had entered the water.

We were also fortunate to see some crocs. One really big one--maybe nine or 10 feet from nose to tail--slid hurriedly into the narrow and three-foot deep, low-tide water just ahead of our kayaks.

As we drifted uneasily downstream over the place where the croc had entered the water, I held my breath. In a few seconds, when we were several yards removed from croc spot, I let out a sigh of relief.

I thought to myself, "There's no way I would have done that in Africa or Australia,"...at least not in a dinky little kayak about six inches off the water line. But here in Florida, I had one thing going for me--our crocs are a little different. To find out how, read the section on crocodile temperament just below.

American Crocodile Temperament

Compared to old-world crocs, American crocodiles aren't all that aggressive. In fact, they're the least aggressive of all large crocs.

So says Dr. Frank Mazzotti, reknowned wildlife ecologist and University of Florida Associate Professor who specializes in crocodiles. At least this idea is attributed to him in a January 29, 2003 IFAS News article entitled UF Crocodile Survey to Yield Information about Everglades Health. The same article also attributes to Dr. Mazzotti the statement that the American crocodile is even shyer than the common Florida alligator.

In a 2009 article, this one written by Dr. Mazzotti, he says "In reality, the American crocodile is so rare and shy of man that conflict with people rarely occurs."

Dr. Mazzotti, by the way, is one of the Croc Docs, a group of mostly University of Florida researchers charged with developing ways to restore and manage south Florida's fragile ecology.

In a telephone conversation a few years ago with Dr. Mazzotti, he told me his work in the Everglades sometimes leads him into the water with American crocodiles, to the sheer horror of his Australian colleagues who are accustomed to much more aggressive crocs down under.

The same article quotes Laura Brandt, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "...the American crocodile is a real sweetheart when compared to the alligator, whose presence is often taken for granted."

Does this mean we can be cavalier about crocs? I don't think so. My guess is it means we'd be wise to view crocodiles with no more or less fear than we view our much more familiar alligators. Treat them with the same respect, and you'll probably be fine.

Also, although American crocodile attacks on humans in Florida are rare to non-existent, attacks have been reported elsewhere in their range.


An overhead view of a large American crocodile swimming in the water

A Personal Observation

Once, while in Everglades National Park at the Flamingo marina, I watched Hector, a 10-foot crocodile skulk lazily around the marina basin. That's him in the sidebar photo.

The marina basin is walled by concrete, much like a swimming pool, but the drop to the water is several feet.

As I stood near but a safe distance from edge watching Hector a few feet below, I shuddered somewhat while every instinct in my head said "You do NOT want to fall in this water right now. It won't be pretty."

Hector had that blank predator stare of a huge and hungry, pea-brained eating machine. Had I fallen in, I have little doubt that he would've been on me before the water had time to soak my clothes. The whole scenario just had that dangerous feel about it.



American Crocodile Video about Florida

This National Geographic video discusses in just under two minutes

  • Some distinctions between alligators and crocodiles

  • A bit about their temperament

  • The importance of maintaining crocodile habitat

  • The presently increasing crocodile population



Living with Crocodiles

A Close-up View of a Key Largo sign warning of crocodiles in the area
Please don't mess with the crocodiles

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission phamplet -- A Guide to Living With Crocodiles -- offers a few safety tips, which I've summarized in bold below. The sub-bullets are my own thoughts.

  • Don't allow small children to play near the water unsupervised.

    • Small mammals are part of a crocodile's natural diet. A small child is a small mammal.

  • Swim only during daylight hours.

    • Crocodiles feed mostly at night. They can see you and you probably can't see them.

  • Don't allow pets to enter the water in crocodile areas.

    • Small mammals are part of a crocodile's natural diet. Fido and Rover are small mammals.

  • Leave crocodiles alone--no feeding, killing, or harassing them.

    • Feeding a croc makes it associate humans with food. They're protected by law. They have big teeth and don't like being harassed.

  • Keep a safe distance from crocodiles.

    • If you're not sure it's safe, you're too close. No "hold-my-beer-and-watch-this" tricks. :-)



What is it...a croc or a gator?

Florida is the only place in the world where crocodiles and alligators coexist. The untrained observer might not know how to distinguish one from the other.

Here a few simple clues that might help:

American Crocodile Alligator
Snout is relatively long, narrow, and pointed. Snout is much more rounded.
Coloration is normally a light brownish gray. Coloration is black (not green as are cartoon alligators).
Fourth tooth on the lower jaw remains exposed when the mouth is shut. Fourth tooth on the lower jaw is hidden when the mouth is shut.
Usually found in saltwater and brackish waters. Usually found in fresh-water locations.



What Do American Crocodiles Eat?

Feeding mostly at night, American crocodiles eat fish, birds, crabs, turtles, and small mammals. Crocodiles are opportunistic feeders and may chomp down on whatever wanders too close to their powerful jaws.

Important Crocodile Locales in Florida

  • Florida Power and Light's Turkey Point Nuclear Plant -- Located east of Homestead on Biscayne Bay, this plant built in 1972 has become a major breeding ground for crocodiles. As it turns out, the extensive system of canalsand banks built on site as part of a plant cooling system functions also as a baby crocodile nursery. About five hundredof Florida's 2,000 adult crocodiles live here at the plant. Florida Power and Light is active in helping the crocodile population to flourish.

  • Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge--The Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge located in north Key Largo is a 6,700-acre reserve established in 1980 "to protect critical breeding and nesting habitat" of what few crocs remained at that time--less than 400 in all of Florida. The Refuge is closed to the public.