A juvenile alligator basking in the sun surrounded by undergrowth and vines at the Gatorland Zoo.

Prehistoric Neighbors in Florida; Alligators and Saltwater Crocodiles

Prehistoric Neighbors in Florida; Alligators and Saltwater Crocodiles

Florida offers a delicious mix of sunshine, wildlife preserves, lakes, sandy beaches, and rich ecosystems supporting diverse wildlife. Urban coyotes, Muscovy ducks, raccoon, shorebirds, and possum are seasonal showoffs throughout the city and our neighborhoods. Our lakes, ponds, parks, preserves, and shores supply rest stops for all to carve out a spot to live wild, if not urbanite. Two inhabitants were here before us and before most. Alligators and saltwater crocodiles. Two reptilian species that, like sharks, have inherited reputations rather than earned them.

Alligators prefer freshwater lakes, rivers, bogs, and marshes throughout Florida, while saltwater crocodiles inhabit brackish water in the southern part of the state. As urban development encroaches into the remaining undeveloped marsh, bog, and brackish places, interactions between humans and these reptiles have become more frequent. Not unexpected by scientists. A big surprise for small dog walkers and strolling couples at dusk near man-made lakes in developed retirement communities and entertainment resorts.

Instances of alligator attacks on humans, particularly when walking dogs near freshwater lakes, are on the rise as humans encroach carelessly. Dogs, being closer to the size of natural prey for these predators, are more likely to attract their attention. An alligator sees a small dog the same way they see a wading stork. Movement and smell deliver the same message. Food.

Florida and Louisiana battle yearly for the highest number of alligator attacks in the United States. Florida comes out ahead because of our population growth and aggressive wildlife encroaching development practices. Between 1948 to 2021, there have been over two dozen deaths from 442 attacks, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Not surprising. The data comparing population density, development maps, and lake, canal, and water management development create a perfect rising line on a graph. More people, less natural settings, more incidents.
A juvenile alligator and crocodile in a shallow pool are at Gatorland Zoo.

Alligators can grow up to 14 feet and weigh over 1,000 pounds. Considered a keystone species in Florida, playing a crucial role in maintaining the balance of their ecosystems. They can live up to 50 years in the wild given food, clean water, and space resources. And alligators can climb trees and fences to access new areas. Fences mean very little to a gator. Trees are speed bumps.

Saltwater crocodiles can reach lengths of up to 23 feet. Adaptable and capable of successfully living in both saltwater and freshwater environments. Saltwater crocodiles can travel over 60 miles by land or water in search of food or a mate. Female saltwater crocs are highly protective of their nests and can become aggressive if they feel threatened.

Saltwater crocodiles aren’t the concern here in The Burg so much as alligators. Parks like Sawgrass have a congregation of alligators. And if a park has a lake, even if you don’t see an alligator, there’s most likely an alligator. They do not have an active interest in us. Groups of humans are a problem to avoid instinctively. The problems and attacks shown online are a culmination of poor choices by humans while alligators are making a choice themselves about mating, food, or territory for mating and food. It’s a seasonal problem. A traveling gator isn’t hunting a human. They are looking for better grounds for mating and food. They are a simple ancient creature with simple ancient needs. And we have taken their ancient grounds.

Simple rules to stay safe while living near Florida loving alligators:

  • Keep a suitable distance from a freshwater’s edge, especially when walking dogs. Alligators can run up to 20 mph on land, and swim 35 mph in their lake. A gator intent on hunting your small dog has massive velocity coming out of the water’s edge. You won’t likely outrun them. A good distance tells a gator you’re a bad choice for lunch.
  • Avoid swimming in areas known to have or have had alligators. Seems self-explanatory, but you can’t swim 35 mph. You can't stay underwater for 2 hours when resting or 10-20 minutes between breaths while swimming. You won’t see an alligator coming until they’ve arrived. Just because an alligator was removed recently from a lake doesn’t mean there aren’t other alligators. Never assume a freshwater pond or lake doesn’t have an alligator, small or large.
  • If you spot an alligator, don’t try to entice them with food or approach one for a selfie or TikTok vid. Seems self-explanatory, but there have been accidents and injuries for the sake of posting online. Gators aren’t afraid of selfie sticks. Someone tried that already.
  • Be extra cautious during mating season (typically April to June, although climate change has them gathering earlier each year). In Florida, gators looking for dates find themselves in residential pools, on front porches, driveways, and hidden in thick garden growth. Golf courses offer sunning platforms called putting greens, lakes called water hazards, and hot sandy spots for digesting meals called sand traps. A veritable gator designed lifestyle. Fences aren’t acknowledged as boundaries. They are on the move and looking for love.
  • Be extra cautious during feeding times (typically dusk and dawn). Alligators are opportunistic hunters but prefer easy pickings with little risk. Keep your small dogs on a leash and away from freshwater shorelines. Lake, pond, bog, or tucked away marshes at parks and preserves are all prime real estate for an alligator.
Alligators are not interested in humans instinctively. They'd prefer to keep their distance as well.

If you’ve got a seasonal agro-gator issue to solve, call the Nuisance Alligator Hotline at 866-FWC-GATOR (866-392-4286) or go online to the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program page.

Arizona and Texas have venomous spiders and snakes. Louisiana has horde level fire ants. Australia has everything else and everything else wants to kill you. Florida has dinosaur reptiles that are an integral part of the fabric of Florida. Florida was once an enormous flowing, ebbing sea of grass. They were here first, and they continue to be a historically significant part of this great state. Coexisting isn’t difficult. It just requires care. You’ll have to care about wildlife.
An adult male alligator sleeping in the sun disinterested in his neighboring wild things.

Spend a day at Gatorland Zoo and experience the truths about alligators and crocodiles close up and personal. A day trip favorite in Florida.
Kathy LaFollett is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

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