If we’re to believe the headlines, there’s a whole crock of large reptilian madness brewing in the southern United States.
Earlier this month, police in Tennessee issued a tongue-in-cheek warning about the danger of so-called “meth-gators”—tweaker alligators spawned by methamphetamine dealers flushing their stashes down the toilet during drug busts.
And now, the Associated Press is reporting that American crocodiles who once faced extinction are thriving in an unlikely place: the canals that surround a nuclear power plant in South Florida.
With Godzilla 2 and the new horror film Crawl both nearing the top of box office charts over the past couple months, it would be nice to entertain the thought of nuclear-enhanced mutant reptiles stalking the land—but alas, southern Florida’s multitudes of crocodiles are neither monstrous nor radioactive.
Last week, 73 hatchlings belonging to the American crocodile or Crocodylus acutus species were discovered by specialists at Florida Power & Light’s (FPL) Turkey Point nuclear plant, and the researchers expect dozens more in coming days.
What makes the discovery remarkable is that the crocodiles, which were believed to be headed toward extinction, have been in such a swift state of recovery that their federal status was boosted in 2007 from “endangered” to “threatened.”
As it turns out, Turkey Point’s 168-mile complex of man-made canals that cool the nuclear power plant also comprise a thriving habitat for the species. Hundreds of American crocodiles reside in the complex, which lies near Biscayne National Park.
Around 25 percent of the 2,000 American Crocodiles within the U.S. now call Turkey Point home, in large part due to researchers from the Florida utility. For years, FPL monitors have been monitoring the crocs, hoping to protect the population from the ever-present threat of natural predators, climate change, and hunters who kill the peaceful creatures out of a desire for profit or irrational fear.
Biologists help create nests and ponds for crocodiles every year. They then find the hatchlings reared and left by their mothers, measure their growth and implant them with microchips to allow them to continue researching the croc colony.
FPL wildlife biologist and crocodile specialist Michael Lloret told AP:
“We entice crocodiles to come in to the habitats FPL created … We clear greenery on the berms so that the crocodiles can nest. Because of rising sea levels wasting nests along the coasts, Turkey Point is important for crocodiles to continue.”
Since its inception in 1978, the Turkey Point Monitoring Program has tagged well over 7,000 hatchlings. The FPL team’s methods have been hailed with helping the species rebound from endangerment.
Yet the species, like others around the globe, has been in a state of relative imbalance due to fast-heating climatic conditions in the region. The hotter the temperature, the more likely it will be that male crocodiles are hatched, Lloret noted. And since last month was the hottest June on record worldwide, this year’s hatchlings have been majority male.
The American crocodile can range in color from a grayish-yellow to brown, and can grow to a spectacular size of up to 15 feet and a weight of up to a full ton, or 2,000 pounds.
And while the idea of a booming crocodile population may seem frightening for film-goers with an over-active imagination, only one crocodile attack has ever been recorded in the U.S.—when a couple who swam in a South Florida canal were both bitten and survived.
Lloret noted that we humans have nothing to fear, provided we respect their space and safety:
“American crocodiles have a bad reputation when they are just trying to survive … They are shy and want nothing to do with us. Humans are too big to be on their menu.”