American crocodiles spotted in South Florida

Signs warning about American crocodiles found at Miami's Kennedy Park

By Christina Vazquez - Reporter

MIAMI - Have you spotted these signs recently?

Bright yellow signs warning of crocodiles have recently surfaced at Miami's Kennedy Park at 2400 S. Bayshore Drive, taking some residents by surprise.

"I thought it would say keep out or something like that but not crocodiles," said Mark Leon. "It's kind of creepy."

Living with alligators in South Florida is a given, but crocodiles?

Once on the endangered species list, the American crocodile has made a resurgence in recent decades, thanks in part to Florida Power & Light's successful preservation program at the utility's Turkey Point facility in Homestead, where the reptiles like to nest on the berms of the plant's cooling canals.

Lindsey Hord, a biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, told Local 10's Christina Vazquez while Turkey Point played a critical role in the recovery of the species, the American crocodile's main nesting site is now Everglades National Park.

Zoo Miami's Ron Magill said South Florida's intricate canal system operates as a sort of freeway for the American crocodile, allowing the booming population to travel into various South Florida communities.

One was even spotted marching across the driveway of marine research labs in Virginia Key last month (pictured).

Most think of crocodiles as a vicious, ambush predator. Some species like the Cuban crocodile, on exhibit at Zoo Miami, or the Austrian salt water crocodile, are extremely aggressive.

"I think a lot of people look at the word 'crocodile' and they are used to seeing these B movies you know, "Crocodile Attacks 4," (and) they are used to seeing these National Geographic videos of the Nile crocodile taking down a wildebeest or the big Austrian saltwater crocodile taking down people and big boats and stuff like that," said Magill. "This is totally different species of crocodile."

When it comes to the American crocodile, Magill said they are quite shy and more reclusive than alligators.

"They are much more frightened of you than you are of them," added Magill.

Hord said Florida does not have a single documented case of a crocodile biting a person.

South Florida represents the northern most reach of the American crocodile. It doesn't venture any farther north due to climate.

Like many Floridians, crocodiles like it hot and avoid cool temperatures. They have been spotted as far north as Fort Lauderdale and as west as Naples, but are predominately found in southern Miami-Dade County.

Magill said seeing more of the American crocodile is a good thing because it is emblematic of a healthy environment. Crocodile help keep a check on raccoon, possum and fish overpopulation.

Currently considered threatened, Hord said there are conversations happening in environmental circles about whether they should be elevated to a higher legal status. If their population continues to boom, perhaps one day you could get a license to hunt them the same way you can alligators.

For now, Magill said consider yourself lucky if you actually see one. Due to their reclusive nature, it's rare anyone ever does and given we are the only location in the continental United States where they live, spotting one would be a real treat.

"American crocodiles, if you approach one, you are lucky to get close enough to it, it will go away from you," he said.

The biggest warning he had: keep your pets away from the water.

Magill said with the brain the size of a walnut, American crocodiles will snap and eat just about anything that comes into contact with its mouth.

That means if your dog is off-leash and wanders into its path, the encounter could be fatal for your four-legged friend.

That perhaps explains why the FWC crocodile warning signs have popped up next to Kennedy Park's dog park located right near the water. As long as you are obeying the law and only unleashing your dog while in the enclosure, you should be fine.

Magill said to keep your community and the crocodiles safe, resist the urge to feed them if you do see them. The fact that they are afraid of you more than you are of them is good for everyone.

READ: FWC's "Living with crocodiles"

The crocodile caution signs include a hotline number to FWC: 866-392-4286. So what happens if you spot a crocodile and call the number?

Hord said the hotline is a tool to educate the public about crocodiles and warn people to keep their pets away from the water.

On occasion, a call may warrant capturing the crocodile to relocate it but Hord said an action like that is rare.

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