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American crocodile spotted in St. Petersburg, a rarity so far north

This American crocodile, perhaps 9 feet long, was seen getting some sun on Shondra Farner’s lawn in the Caya Costa gated community in St. Petersburg this past Saturday.

Courtesy of Shondra Farner

This American crocodile, perhaps 9 feet long, was seen getting some sun on Shondra Farner’s lawn in the Caya Costa gated community in St. Petersburg this past Saturday.

Know what Shondra Farner likes about her neighborhood in northeast St. Petersburg? "The wildlife," she said. Hawks, otters, blue herons — she sees them regularly.

Last Saturday, a neighbor told her to watch for an alligator. Farner lives in Caya Costa, a gated community that borders Tampa Bay. Its saltwater ponds and lakes are considered less than ideal for freshwater-loving gators. But sure enough Farner saw a well-known silhouette in the middle of the 5-acre lake.

An hour later, she got a better look. The reptile, perhaps 9 feet long, its jaws gaping open, sunbathed impudently on her lawn.

Grabbing her camera, she crept closer, aimed and fired.

That's how she got the first without-a-doubt American crocodile photo taken in the Tampa Bay area in a half-century, if not longer.

• • •

"We're very happy about this," said Lindsey Hord, crocodile expert for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "This is very cool that we have one this far north."

Maybe your great-grandfather caught a glimpse of a Tampa Bay crocodile back when Harry Truman occupied the Oval Office. But probably not. Even then crocs were in short supply.

They're a tropical coastal species found through the Caribbean and in the mangrove swamps of the southernmost parts of our state. Back when waterfront wilderness was more common than waterfront homes, crocodiles appeared seldom enough to excite naturalists who knew they were seeing something special.

That was before the shooting got out of hand. For decades crocodiles and their alligator cousins were hunted for hides and meat until both ended up on the endangered species list. Crocodiles came close to vanishing. Thirty years ago, biologists found only 20 nests.

Thanks to protection, wildlife refuges and old-fashioned luck, the crocodile population has come back. Biologists say South Florida is now home to at least 1,500 adults, plus hatchlings. As numbers grow, the crocs are reclaiming historic territories that biologists hope might include the Tampa Bay area.

• • •

Shondra Farner knew the visitor to her lawn was no alligator.

She and her husband, Tom, vacationed in Costa Rica last year. She took her share of crocodile photos, including one of a maniac feeding a giant by hand.

Alligators are black and have rounded snouts and grow to about 14 feet. The America crocodile tends to be olive green, with a narrower snout.

Crocs are a little bigger than gators. Alligators, which number in the millions, are found in freshwater throughout the South. American crocodiles love saltwater, hate cold temperatures and are thought to be less aggressive than alligators.

A crocodile attack on a human in Florida has never been documented, but crocs have been blamed for attacks throughout the Caribbean. Farner, 59, got no closer than 10 feet. "It didn't move a muscle.'' But when Tom ambled into the yard, it skedaddled, crashing into the lake like a Steinway.

• • •

Biologists plucked a 4-foot crocodile from the surf at Cocoa Beach last year. They have removed 6-footers from Miami swimming pools and ejected 8-foot crocs from luxury golf courses in Naples.

The state has now established a program to deal with the growing number of "nuisance crocodiles" showing up in suburban Florida. Crocodiles are either taken to zoos or released into places without children or dogs.

Caya Costa boasts many dogs and kids, as well as a few homeowners nervous about the wilderness that has arrived among them. Eric Bethmann, 46, was walking his mother's prized Westmoreland terrier with trepidation. Usually he walks her along the lake. Now he stuck to the sidewalk. "If something happened to Daisy, my mother would never forgive me,'' he said.

Meanwhile, a small army of state-sanctioned crocodile catchers patrolled Caya Costa in hopes of catching the prize and moving it elsewhere, possibly Weedon Island Preserve, a 3,700-acre, mostly mangrove county park nearby.

Prehistoric creatures, crocodiles have a brain about the size of a walnut. This one was smart enough to make itself scarce. Caya Costa residents watched the crocodile army watching for the crocodile.

Shondra Farner kept her camera handy. If the croc shows up again on her lawn, maybe she'll sneak a little closer.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Shondra Farner, who photographed an American crocodile in her St. Petersburg neighborhood, is married to Tom Farner. We got his name wrong Thursday.

Where do they live?

Crocodiles are found in mostly brackish and saltwater in coastal South Florida, though they are beginning to show up as far north as Tampa Bay. Crocodiles have a low tolerance for cold weather and tend to move south during winter.

Alligators live in mostly freshwater bodies throughout the South. They tolerate cold well.

How long are they?

Crocodiles: In Florida, males up to 15 feet, females up to 11 feet.

Alligators: Males up to 14 feet 7 inches, females up to 10 feet.

What do they look like?

American crocodiles are greenish-gray. They have narrow, tapered snouts. On a crocodile, the fourth tooth on the lower jaw is exposed when the jaws are closed.

Alligators are slate gray to black in color. They have broad, rounded snouts. On an alligator, the fourth tooth on the lower jaw is not exposed when the jaws are closed.

American crocodile spotted in St. Petersburg, a rarity so far north 09/21/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 22, 2011 4:20pm]

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