Monday, April 23, 2018

No later, gator in Florida: A few reminders about the reptiles among us

Last week was newsworthy for alligators in Florida. First, a massive 13- or 14-footer took a stroll in broad daylight at the Circle B Bar Reserve in Polk County. Cell phone video shows the gator slowly crossing a nature trail on its way from one lake to another.

A few days later, another viral video shows an alligator minding its own business on a shoreline in Daytona Beach. A boat with tourists from Missouri gets a little too close. In an instant, the gator lunges onto the boat, gets stuck in the railing, then finally frees itself and swims off.

That's a souvenir those tourists will never forget.

It's also a reminder that we live in alligator country. They were here before us and they will likely be here long after we are gone.

"Yes, they are all around us," said Dr. Deby Cassill, an associate professor of biology at USF St. Petersburg and an alligator expert. "They are as leery of us as we are of them."

And we humans should be leery.

It's not as if alligators spend their days looking for humans to attack. It's actually the opposite. They are generally less active in the winter months and during the day. They tend to feed near sundown or at night. The diet of an adult alligator is fish, snakes, turtles, small mammals and birds, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Attacks on humans are rare, and it's usually a case of misidentification. In the case of the 2-year-old attacked and killed last year near a Disney World hotel, officials believe that the alligator mistook the child for a small dog or raccoon.

And when walking a pet, stay away from the water's edge since gators can lurk just under the water surface or in weeds. In fact, keep your distance in an area that may have alligators. There is no such thing as a docile alligator.

"Tourists may treat them as a pet, like something we would see in the zoo," Cassill said. "These are animals we have coincided with since there were humans. We are a primate that must be around water and warmth. The habitat that alligators favor is the same habitat that humans favor.

"They are not in the zoo and they are not docile. You can't predict them."

As more people move to Florida, there are sure to be more strange encounters with alligators. There are several "only in Florida" stories about alligators ending up in back yards or in swimming pools.

"There needs to be not just tolerance but acceptance," Cassill said. "It's an animal that deserves its space in this Florida paradise."

Where to see an alligator in Tampa Bay

While gators can be seen in just about any lake or swamp in the area, some parks that have year-round gator populations.

Hillsborough River State Park: Take a kayak trip down the river and keep your eyes peeled on the shoreline. There are sure to be a few gators sunning as you paddle by.

Sawgrass Lake Park: The park in mid-St. Petersburg has lakes and a boardwalk. A good place to view gators from a distance.

Boyd Hill Nature Preserve: Not only is Lake Maggiore a prime hangout for alligators, the park also offers an alligator walk on the second Sunday of each month ($3 for adults, $1.50 for children).

Homosassa Springs State Park: Another good place to kayak or boat and view the gators from a safe distance.

Know your gators

• Female alligators rarely exceed 10 feet. The largest alligator ever recorded in Florida was 14 feet, 3½ inches in Brevard County's Lake Washington. The record weight is 1,043 pounds in Alachua County.

• According to Cassill, alligators have a 100 times stronger bite than a great white shark.

• Alligators generally do most of their hunting in the water, so it is rare to be chased by an alligator on land. If you spot an alligator on land, leave. Gators only lunge if they feel threatened.

• Alligators are said to be about 300 million years old. Their average lifespan is 30-50 years.

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