LAKELAND — An unidentified man was found dead Saturday in a Lakeland canal, a 7-foot female alligator guarding his body.
Authorities don't know yet if the gator is responsible for his death.
The armless body was spotted by two fisherman early Saturday. They called authorities. When Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation officers arrived, the gator wouldn't leave the body.
Officers shot it, cut open its stomach and found evidence that the alligator had been feeding on the body. They were hoping to find the man's arms, which might help to identify him through fingerprints.
But the gator hadn't ingested them, said Carrie Rodgers, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's office. "That doesn't mean another gator didn't do it," she added.
Deputies don't suspect foul play, but they won't know exactly how he died until an autopsy is performed today.
"Whether the alligator killed him and stashed him until it was time to eat or whether he fell out of a boat or had a heart attack we don't know," said wildlife commission spokesman Gary Morse.
The summer months are the most dangerous time for Floridians who share a habitat with alligators. Because they're cold-blooded reptiles, gators become more active when temperatures heat up.
As their metabolisms speed up, they mate, move around and feed more often. Still, deaths by alligators are relatively uncommon in Florida. In about 60 years of tracking bites, the wildlife commission has recorded 22 deaths. The most fatal attacks in a single year is three.
Last year's only death was that of Justo Antonio Padron, 36, who was killed as he swam across a pond at the Miccosukee Indian Reservation in west Miami. Witnesses saw him disappear in the water as he tried to elude police.
Morse said it's hard to see a pattern in deadly encounters. But an increasing number of people living near the water has led to a rise in complaints about alligators, according to the wildlife commission.
"The trend is this: We have more people and more alligators coming into contact," Morse said.
Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or [email protected]