The Plight of the Crocodile

October 15, 2009

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In the United States, there are many endangered and threatened animals which the public knows much about. The Gray Wolf, Grizzly Bear, Black Footed Ferret, and so forth. All of these animals fall into the “charismatic megafauna” title: big, furry animals that look good on a postcard. Unfortunately, there are constant battles being fought for other lesser known and lesser loved species One of these animals is the American Crocodile. Yes, that is correct, there is a native Crocodile in the United States.

The American Crocodile ranges from the coastlines of the northern portion of South America, throughout Mexico and Central America and to the Caribbean islands. There is also a small remnant population struggling to survive in the Everglades of southern Florida. Since the appearance of Europeans in Florida, the crocodiles (and alligators) have been killed, and their habitats destroyed. It is estimated that at one time, the American Crocodile numbered in the tens of thousands, but today somewhere between 500 and 2,000 survive. These ferocious carnivores survive in the brackish, coastal waters along the southern third of the Florida coast, but their habitat is dwindling in both size and quality.

Crocodiles share geographic space with their relative, the Alligator. Over the course of crocodilian history, the Alligators became more adept at handling more habitats, and the Crocodiles were relegated to the coastlines where they found success in the mangrove swamps and brackish streams. American Crocodiles have nearly the identical diet to that of Alligators with the exception being that Crocodiles will make marine animals prey items. The physical differences between the two species are well notated and easily found with a simple web search. The main issue haunting the Crocodile is how its habitat, compared to that of the Alligator, is being protected.

Coastal, brackish areas in Florida are under constant assault not only from human intrusion, but from pollution. Many of the mangroves in Florida are dying because of increased pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. This directly affects the Crocodile as they use the cover of the mangroves to breed and build their nests. Agricultural runoff from the Mississippi River delta is wreaking havoc across the Gulf and water tests show that the pollution trail reaches as far as Puerto Rico. As people in and around the state continue to push Florida to its physical limits, the Crocodile will be one of the first large animals to feel it.

People ask questions like, “Why is the Crocodile even important? The Alligator is there.” These questions are simple to answer if a person is willing to accept a few notions: 1) The natural world is essential for our existence. 2) Humans live within the natural world, not above it. The Crocodile’s role in the ecological balance in Florida is well documented. They are the top predator in their habitat and provide the typical benefits any top predator does. Just like the wolves in Yellowstone actually increasing the health of the Elk populations, Crocodiles have much the same effect.

The bigger picture is that the United States has been blessed to be the home to 1000s of unique species, and the biodiversity in places like southern Florida is one of the nation’s greatest natural wonders. If our society continues on the current path, we may eventually lose jewels like the American Crocodile. The tragedy of this is best describe with the following analogy: How great would a zoo be if it had only 10 types of animals on display? And what if every zoo had the same 10? This is the drastic end of the direction society is going. With habitat destruction and degradation, species’ populations are being fragmented and destroyed. Soon, there may be nothing left but lands with few, if any, native animals.

The Crocodile is a poster child for these issues. While rarely seen in the wild, the Crocodile is there, surviving in the brackish waters of southern Florida. Hopefully, it will still be there for our children’s children. Take the time to do some simple research on our native habitats and species and what you can do to help them survive. Whether it be donating a small sum, making minute lifestyle changes, or imploring your congressman, being stewards of our national treasures is a responsibility we all share.

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