Tears for a Crocodile
She had no name. No one was sure how old she was. She was the last of her kind but when she died last month, those that knew of her expressed their sadness at losing a reptilian icon that had endured in the face of dwindling habitat and population decline.
The lone American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) living at the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, Florida was considered to be the northernmost of her species. She was first spotted on the island in 1980 and as the singular representative of her kind was a reminder that cold-intolerant crocodilians were once found as far north as Tampa Bay.
When the reclusive croc expressed her maternal instincts by scraping together sandy nests along Sanibel’s protected bayside shores and laying infertile eggs, biologists captured her and introduced her to some of the males further south in the Everglades National Park. The plan of this reptilian dating game was to acquiesce to the lone mama’s biological imperative and encourage offspring. But showing little fondness for her new home, she swam over one hundred miles up the gulf coast over several weeks and returned to her familiar haunts on Sanibel.
American Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) are more cold-tolerant and once ranged as far north as Virginia. Crocodiles are limited not only by the chill of the 27th parallel but prefer the brackish waters of Florida’s coast. While alligator populations have increased from 10,000 in the 70s to nearly two million today, crocodile populations have increased to an estimated two thousand animals. Their similarity in appearance has necessitated the continued listing of alligators as a threatened species while crocodiles are considered endangered.
Crocodiles are distinctly different to the trained eye. They have olive-green to grayish skin, teeth that point up and down when the jaw is closed, and a narrow snout. Like all reptiles they grow throughout their lives, with large American Crocodiles reaching lengths over 15 feet.
It is quite possible the Sanibel crocodile died of old age. More likely the long sustained cold snap of January 2010 took its toll on the ectothermic reptile . With gulf water temperatures dropping to an astonishing 48 degrees and air temperatures consistently around 34 degrees for more than a week, the cold-blooded croc had little chance to keep warm. At eleven foot and over 500 pounds, she was found dead, mouth agape and basking as if to gather any bit of warmth she could muster. Her skeleton will be placed on display at the refuge.