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See You Later, Not-An-Alligator – Repeating Islands

Freda Kreier (The New York Times) reports on caimans, an invasive species in Florida. She writes that “researchers known as the Croc Docs may be close to helping eradicate them.”

Sidney Godfrey was sitting in the passenger seat of a truck slowly cruising over a levee one night in 2018. This far into Florida’s dry season, the air was thick with the smell of mud wafting up from the exposed canals and wetlands along the edge of Biscayne Bay, south of Miami. Mr. Godfrey, a wildlife biologist, kept his gaze — and his headlamp — pointed down to light up the water at the base of the levee.

The glint of a reptilian eye came from a grove of Australian pine below. The hunt was underway.

It was Mr. Godfrey’s first night surveying with the Croc Docs — the nickname for a University of Florida lab based out of Fort Lauderdale. He and Ed Metzger, that evening’s survey leader, stepped out of the truck and started making their way down to the target. They soon found themselves wading through muck. Their legs punched through layers of pine needles mixed with mud. Each step dredged up the smell of dead and decaying things.

The owner of the shining eyes had spotted the pair and was doing his best to move away from the lumbering humans. But the researchers persisted, slowly, painfully, wading toward an animal that was neither a trademark Florida gator nor a native crocodile. Their quarry was instead a six-foot-long spectacled caiman.

The caimans of southern Florida are not as well known as their alligator cousins. Half a century ago, caimans were taken from their homelands in tropical wetlands of Latin America and brought to the United States for the leather and pet trades. Most of the hundreds of thousands of caimans imported into the United States during the 1970s perished. But a few held out in the southernmost corner of the Sunshine State. Like many invasive species in Florida, they’ve become a nuisance.

Scientific understanding of the effects of invasive caimans is still evolving. But researchers have spotted signs that caimans might crowd out American alligators and American crocodiles, while preying on vulnerable indigenous species. And the animals are more aggressive when cornered than native crocodilians, potentially putting people at risk of attacks.

Over the last decade, the Croc Docs have run surveys across Miami-Dade County in an attempt to understand the lives of these elusive predators. This isn’t idle curiosity. By learning about caimans, the lab has been working to bring their numbers under control. It’s a goal shared with state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

And it’s a goal that may be attainable. The crew has spotted fewer and fewer caimans along survey routes in recent years. In a study published this August, the researchers found that the area’s caiman populations might be on the decline. If so, the caiman could become one of the few invasive species that Florida manages to get rid of, or at least get under control. [. . .]

The leather industry pivoted to harvesting the ample supply of caimans in the tropical wetlands of Central and South America. Savvy businesspeople soon brought live caimans stateside. Over 112,000 caimans were imported in 1970 alone, according to a Fish and Wildlife Service estimate.

From there, some animals were set up on farms to be raised for leather. But hatchlings were also sold at gas stations and grocery stores as pets. Most of the caimans sold in stores were spectacled caimans — a species so named for the glasses-like ridge that runs along their snouts. These reptiles are somewhat smaller than crocodiles native to Florida. But telling them apart from alligators and crocodiles can still be tricky for those who haven’t developed an eye for their gray, yellow and chocolate-brown splotches or their distinctive ridgeline. [. . .]

For full article and an array of photos, see https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/24/science/caiman-invasive-species-florida.html

[Photo above by Jason Gulley for The New York Times. A caiman hatchling. The aquatic reptiles are cousins of alligators and crocodiles, but not native to the United States.]

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