Conservationists Prowl Swamps to Save Florida Crocs

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One recent evening Mazzotti and Cherkiss spotted their prey—and wielded tongs in the mangrove roots to pluck out three tiny crocs.

Two of them are recaptures, identified by the marked scales, known as scutes, on their backs. The scutes are removed according to a prescribed sequence which gives each animal a unique, and permanent, mark. Mazzotti and Cherkiss weigh the third croc—74 grams (2.6 ounces)—and mark him.

"Any time you recapture an animal it's exciting, but when you find one that more than a decade has passed since you first tagged it, that's really exciting," Mazzotti says.

American crocodiles can grow up to 13 feet (four meters) and 500 pounds (230 kilograms), and live for 60 years.

Fear of the American Croc

Despite the recent positive signs, "the crocs aren't out of the woods yet," says John Thorbjarnarson, a conservation zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Bronx, New York, and an authority on the world's 23 crocodilian species.

It has long been illegal to hunt crocodiles for their hide. But their survival is threatened by loss of habitat—especially the sandy berms where they nest—and by humans. Crocodile females roving in search of nesting grounds get hit by cars, the main cause of crocodile mortality.

Public fear of the American crocodile is, in large part, erroneously based on stories of the Nile and Australian crocodiles, which are known to attack and eat humans on occasion. Their American cousins aren't as aggressive.

The Florida crocodiles are also relatively shy by contrast with alligators, who overlap their range but aren't endangered. Crocodiles are lighter in color, with longer, narrower snouts. Also, their teeth are visible even when their mouths are closed.

Mazzotti hesitates to call any crocodilian "gentle," but in all his years of research he has had "no close calls," he says, "no nipped fingers, no scars. I consider riding in my car to the study site a whole lot more dangerous than catching the animals once I'm there."

Mazzotti is eyewitness to the crocodile's recovery. "Biologically the population is ready for reclassification (from endangered to threatened)," he says. "But human intolerance will keep the crocs endangered. This is a success story still in progress."

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