Along with the comfortable weather and April Fools' jokes, the first of April also marks the start of a more Florida-specific tradition: Alligator mating season.
Starting Monday and running until June, Florida's estimated 1.3 million alligators will be more active, more visible and more aggressive as they mate, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
While the chances of being bitten in Florida are only 1 in 3.2 million, attacks have been on the rise in recent years.
Inside Science, a science news publication, wrote in August that gator bites in Florida have increased "from an average of just one every three years between 1988 and 1999 to about seven per year between 2000 and 2016." Statistics on the FWC's website suggest similar numbers, saying there has been an average of six unprovoked alligator bites per year over the last 10.
The reptiles mainly choose their meals based on what they can find at a given time, which means they'll eat frogs, birds, turtles, fish, snakes, small mammals and even wild hogs.
Dogs and cats look like natural prey, so gators sometimes attack people's pets.
"Anything that's about the right size and the right opportunity is potential prey," said Marty Main, an expert in alligator behavior and program leader for natural resources at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "They can even go for adults if you find yourself in a compromising position."
Since 1988, there have been 18 fatal attacks on humans involving an alligator in Florida and two since 2016, according to the FWC.
The two most recent incidents occurred during mating season. Last June, a 47-year-old South Florida woman was attacked and killed by a gator while she walked her dogs near a lake in Davie. Two mating season's prior, a 2-year-old boy was dragged into the water by an alligator near Disney's upscale Grand Floridian Resort & Spa and killed, grabbing national headlines.
"Alligators have inhabited Florida's marshes, swamps, rivers and lakes for many centuries, and are found in all 67 counties," the FWC says on its site. "In recent years, Florida has experienced tremendous human population growth. Many residents seek waterfront homes and increasingly participate in water-related activities. This can result in more frequent alligator-human interactions and a greater potential for conflict."
Scientists say the reason alligators become more visible and aggressive in mating season is due to the warmer weather, which increases the reptile's metabolism and desire to seek out prey. It also means you'll potentially see them basking in the sun more often as they regulate their body temperature.
In order to keep pets and residents safe, the agency released the following tips:
• Never feed an alligator. It’s illegal and causes alligators to overcome their natural wariness and learn to associate people with food.
• Keep your distance if you see one. Alligators may look lethargic but can move quickly.
• Swim only in designated swimming areas during daylight hours. Alligators are most active between dusk and dawn.
• Keep pets away from the water (at least 10 feet from the water’s edge).
The FWC says it encourages anyone who believes a specific alligator poses a threat to people, pets or property to call the Nuisance Alligator Hotline at (866) 392-4286. The organization said that it receives an average of 15,000 nuisance alligator complaints annually.
"FWC’s response to alligator bite incidents is to remove the alligator involved," agency spokeswoman Karen Parker said in August. "Every effort is made to ensure the responsible alligator has been removed."
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