Snakes on Our Barrier Islands

Snakes on Our Barrier Islands

Over the last two years I have been surveying snakes in a local community on Perdido Key.  The residents were concerned about the number of cottonmouths they were seeing and wanted some advice on how to handle the situation.  Many are surprised by the number of cottonmouths living on barrier islands, we think of them as “swamp” residents.  But they are here, along with several other species, some of which are venomous.  Let’s look at some that have been reported over the years.

The dune fields of panhandle barrier islands are awesome – so reaching over 50 ft. in height. This one is near the Big Sabine hike (notice white PVC markers).

In the classic text Handbook of Reptiles and Amphibians of Florida; Part One – Snakes (published in 1981), Ray and Patricia Ashton mention nine species found on coastal dunes or marshes.  They did not consider any of them common and listed the cottonmouth as rare – they seem to be more common today.  In a more recent publication (Snakes of the Southeast, 2005) Whit Gibbons and Michael Dorcas echo what the Ashton’s published but did add a few more species, many of which I have found as well.  Their list brings the total to 15 species.  I have frequently seen four other species in Gulf Breeze and Big Lagoon State Park that neither publication included, but I will since they are close to the islands – this brings the total 19 species that residents could encounter.

 

Leading us off is the one most are concerned about – the Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorous).  Though listed as “rare” by the Ashton’s, encounters on both Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key are becoming common.  There is more than one subspecies of this snake – the eastern cottonmouth is the local one – and that the water moccasin and cottonmouth are one in the same snake.  This snake can reach 74 inches in length (6ft).  They are often confused with their cousin the copperhead (Agkistrodon contorix).  Both begin life in a “copper” color phase and with a luminescent green-tipped tail.  But at they grow, the cottonmouth becomes darker in color (sometimes becoming completely black) while the copperhead remains “copper”.  The cottonmouth also has a “mask” across its eyes that the copperhead lacks.  Believe it or not, the cottonmouth is not inclined to bite.  When disturbed they will vibrate their tail, open their mouth showing the “cottonmouth” and displaying their fangs, and swiveling their head warning you to back off.  Attacking, or chasing, rarely happens.  I find them basking in the open in the mornings and seeking cover the rest of the day.  Turning over boards (using a rake – do not use your hand) I find them coiled trying to hide.  MOST of the ones I find are juveniles.  These are opportunistic feeders – eating almost any animal but preferring fish.  They hunt at night.  Breeding takes place in spring and fall.  The females give live birth in summer.  As mentioned earlier, they seem to be becoming more common on our islands.

 

Eastern Cottonmouth with distinct “mask” and flattened body trying to intimidate.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

This year, while surveying for cottonmouths, I encountered numerous Eastern Coachwhips (Masticophis flagellum).  These long slender snakes can reach lengths of 102” (8ft.), move very fast across the ground – often with their heads raised like a cobra – and, even though nonvenomous, will bite aggressively.  They get their name from their coloration.  They have a dark brown head and neck and a tan colored body – resemble an old coachwhip.  They like dune environments and are excellent climbers.  They consume lizards, small birds and mammals, and even other small snakes.  They are most active during the daylight, but I usually find them beneath boards and other debris hiding.  They have always been on the islands but encountered more often this past year.  They lay eggs and do so in summer.

 

Their close cousin, the Southern Black Racer (Coluber constricta) is very similar but a beautiful dark black color.  They can reach lengths of 70” (6ft.) and are also very fast.  Like their cousin, they are nonvenomous but bite aggressively – often vibrating their tail like cottonmouths warning you to stay back.  They are beneficial controlling amphibian, reptile, and mammalian animals.  They are also summer egg layers.

The southern black racer differs from otehr black snakes in its brillant white chin and thin sleek body.
Photo: Jacqui Berger.

There are a few freshwater snakes that, like the cottonmouth do not like saltwater, but could be found on the islands.  These are in the genus Nerodia and are nonvenomous.  There are two species (the Midland and Banded water snakes) that could be found here.  They resemble cottonmouths in size and color and are often confused with them.  They differ in that they have vertical dark stripes running across their jaws and have a round pupil.  Though nonvenomous, they will bite aggressively.  One member of the Nerodia group is the Gulf Coast Salt Marsh Snake (Nerodia clarkii clarkii).  This snake does like saltwater and is found in the brackish salt marshes on the island.  It is dark in color with four longitudinal stripes, two are yellow and two are a dull brown color.  It only reaches a length of 36” (3ft.), is nocturnal, and feeds on estuarine fish and invertebrates.

This banded water snake is often confused with the cottonmouth. This animal has the vertical stripes extending from the lower jaw, which is lacking in the cottonmouth.
Photo: University of Georgia

Other species that the guides mention, or I have seen, are the small Crowned Snake, Southern Hognose, Pine Snake, Pine Woods Snake, and the Rough Green Snake.  I will mention here species I have seen in either Gulf Breeze or Big Lagoon State Park that COULD be found on the island:  Eastern Coral Snake, Eastern Garter Snake, Pigmy Rattlesnake, Eastern Hognose, and the Corn Snake (also called the Red Rat Snake).  Only two of these (Eastern Coral and Pigmy) are venomous.

 

Last, but not least, is the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotolus adamateus).  This is the largest venomous snake in the United States, reaching 96” (8ft.).  It is a diurnal hunter consuming primarily small mammals, though large ones can take rabbits.  They prefer the dry areas of the island where cover is good.  Palmettos, Pine trees, and along the edge of wetlands are their favorite haunts.  Despite their preference for dry sandy environments, they – like all snakes – are good swimmers and large rattlesnakes have been seen swimming across Santa Rosa Sound and Big Lagoon.  They tend to rattle before you get too close and you should yield to this animal.  The have an impressive strike range, 33% of their body length, you should give these guys a wide berth.  I have come across several that never rattled, I just happen to see them.  Again, give them plenty of room when walking by.

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake swimming in intracoastal waterway near Ft. McRee in Pensacola.
Photo: Sue Saffron

It is understandable that people are nervous about snakes being in popular vacation spots, but honestly… they really do not like to be around people.  We are trouble for them and they know it.  Most encounters are in the more natural areas of the islands.  Staying on marked trails and open areas, where you can see them – and be sure to look down while walking, you should see them and avoid trouble.  For more questions on local snakes, contact me at the county extension office.

 

References

 

Ashton, R.E., P.S. Ashton. 1981. Handbook of Reptiles and Amphibians of Florida; Part One – Snakes. Windward Publishing, Miami FL. Pp.176.

 

Gibbons, W., M. Dorcas. 2005. Snakes of the Southeast. University of Georgia Press, Athens GA. Pp. 253.

Yellow flies, deer flies and horse flies, oh my!

Yellow flies, deer flies and horse flies, oh my!

Adult yellow fly. Photo: James Castner

The summer heat is here and with that comes the misfortune of yellow flies, deer flies and horse flies. If you’ve ever experienced their painful bite, you know they can certainly make outdoor work and recreation miserable. These biting flies belong to the insect family Tabanidae and are widely recognized as being economically important pests of humans, cattle and horses. Their populations increase May through September and you’ll find them most active during the daylight hours.

Horse fly (left) and deer fly (right). Photo: James Castner

Yellow flies and deer flies range in length from 1/3″ to 4/10″ and closely resemble each other. Deer flies are yellow to black, have stripes on the abdomen and have dark patches on their wings. Yellow flies have the same body shape, are yellowish but have dark purple-black eyes with florescent green lines. Horse flies are slightly larger, about 4/10″ to 1” with green or black eyes and black to dark brown in color.

Similar to mosquitoes, the female fly is responsible for inflicting a bite. The males feed primarily on pollen and nectar. Females are daytime feeders and use their large scissor-like mouthparts to lacerate skin for a blood meal. During feeding, anticoagulants in the female’s saliva are injected into the skin, which increases blood flow and in some cases can cause allergic reactions.

Standing water and mucky areas, such as ponds and swamps, serve as breeding grounds for most species of biting flies. They have an aquatic or semi-aquatic immature life cycle that requires adequate moisture for development. Females lay eggs in masses on plants, rocks, sticks, vegetation or any other objects found over water. Five to seven days after hatching, the larvae begin to feed on decaying organic matter. The mature larvae migrate to drier soil and develop into pupae. The pupal stage is a non-feeding stage that lasts about two to three weeks and concludes with the emerging adult.

Trolling Deer Fly Trap developed by UF/IFAS Entomologist, Russ Mizell.

Unfortunately, controlling biting flies through source reduction and chemicals is difficult as they develop in natural areas where insecticide applications can be tricky. One method that can be effective in small-scale areas is the use of traps. Adults can be trapped using a big black ball or a blue plastic cup covered in glue. The traps should be hung about three to six feet above the ground and require wind movement for the attraction of flies.

The use of insect repellents can be helpful but not overly effective. A better prevention option is to wear protective clothing to reduce the likelihood of skin exposure to flies.

For more information on this topic, use the links to the following publications:

UF/IFAS Biting Flies

The Trolling Deer Fly Trap

The Yellow Fly Trap

Who is the Creature That Causes Red Tide: Information on Karenia brevis

Who is the Creature That Causes Red Tide: Information on Karenia brevis

When I was in high school we were required to take a semester of communism during our senior year – the idea was to “know the enemy”. That is what we plan to do here… But, the enemy is a microscopic plant.

 

Its name is Karenia brevis.  It is one of about 10 species of Karenia found in the ocean but it is the dominant form in the Gulf of Mexico. Karenia is referred to as “phytoplankton”, which suggests it is a microscopic plant.  But in fact, it is in the Kingdom Protisita, not Plantae.

The dinoflagellate Karenia brevis.
Photo: Smithsonian Marine Station-Ft. Pierce FL

It is “plant-like” in that it has chlorophyll and can produce its own food. It differs in that it is a single cell.  They are a type of phytoplankton called “dinoflagellates” because they have two flagella.  The next question of course is what is flagella?  It is a hair-like structure used by the cells for location.  Though they can swim, they cannot out swim a current and so drift in the ocean – using their flagella to move up and down within the current and orient themselves.

 

The cell is covered with a protective shell called a theca, which as grooves, known as girdles, in which the flagella lie – one running east-west, the other north-south. They are between 18-45 microns long with the north-south flagella extending to look like a tail.  They are members of the Gulf of Mexico community.  Always out there, always have been.  Typically, a plankton sample might find 1000 cells / liter.  At these concentrations there does not seem to be a problem.

 

A problem?

What’s the problem?

 

The problem is that in its defense, K. brevis will release toxins.  The toxin is a cocktail of lipophilic polyether compounds called brevotoxins.  At low, or background concentrations, the levels of brevotoxins does not seem to effect marine organisms much at all.  However, when the population of cells increases, to say 2 million / liter, fish kills can occur.  The state of Florida will close shellfish harvesting if the concentrations reach 5000 / liter.

 

This brevotoxin is pretty strong stuff. It effects the nervous and immune systems, and effects the respiratory system.  For marine vertebrates, it is deadly.  At concentrations over 1,000,000 cells / liter, it can cause death for fish, dolphins, sea turtles, and manatees.  Shellfish are filter feeders.  During large blooms of K. brevis shellfish can consume enough to make humans very sick if they consume the shellfish.

 

So what causes their numbers to increase from 1000 to 1,000,000 cells / liter?

 

Summer…

Though K. brevis is not a plant, it is plant-like.  Plants like sunlight and fertilizers.  Warm shallow seas of southwest Florida are perfect.  Nutrients are available in the environment and growth begins.  Most blooms (large growth spurts) occur offshore.  They love high salinities and not as common in our estuaries.  However, they are plankton – wind and currents can move them closer to shore.  During the raining season (summer) run-off from land brings with it nitrogen and phosphorus (nutrients) which can enhance a bloom.  The fish kills begin, the respiratory problems for humans are annoying, and the tourist become concerned.  Red tide can certainly have an impact on the local economy.

 

Globally, algal blooms seem to be increasing. Red tide can last a few days or a few months, each year varies.  These are not exotic species; they are local Gulf residents who are finding warmer, saltier seas that they love.  Algal blooms typically occur from September to February and though are common in southwest Florida, can extend across the Gulf to Texas – which the Florida panhandle is experiencing currently.

 

As Dr. Karl Havens mentions in his article attached, we cannot control the weather, but we can control the amount of nutrients we allow into our waterways. We should consider management practices that do just this to reduce the effects of these naturally occurring blooms.

 

Below are other articles from Sea Grant on this topic.

 

Frequently Asked Questions About the 2018 Red Tide Bloom – Betty Staugler, Florida Sea Grant

http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/charlotteco/2018/08/14/frequently-asked-questions-about-the-2018-red-tide-bloom/.

 

Understanding Florida’s Red Tide – Betty Staugler, Florida Sea Grant

https://www.flseagrant.org/news/2018/08/understanding-the-florida-red-tide/.

 

Watching and Waiting: Uncertainty About When the Algal Blooms Will End – Dr. Karl Haven, Florida Sea Grant

https://www.flseagrant.org/news/2018/07/watching-and-waiting-uncertainty-about-when-algae-blooms-will-end/.

 

 

REFERENCES

 

About Florida Red Tides. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. http://myfwc.com/research/redtide/general/about/.

 

Indian River Lagoon Species Inventory. Karenia brevis. Smithsonian Marine Station at Ft. Pierce.  http://www.sms.si.edu/irlspec/Kareni_brevis.htm.

 

Pierce, R.H., M.S. Henry. 2008. Harmful Algal Toxins of the Florida Red Tide (Karenia brevis): natural chemical stressors in South Florida coastal ecosystems. Ecotoxicology. 17(7). Pp. 623-631. http://www.sms.si.edu/irlspec/Kareni_brevis.htm.

Which Local Creatures Eat Venomous Snakes?

Which Local Creatures Eat Venomous Snakes?

In my job, I get many calls about snakes. Most people want to know how to tell a venomous from a nonvenomous one and how to keep them out of the yard.  I was recently reading a new book out by Dr. Sean Graham entitled American Snakes and in the chapter on snake defenses, he provided a long litany of local creatures who consumed snakes – some surprised me.  Check this out…

The “cottonmouth” gape of this venomous snakes is a warning. Notice the banded coloration of this individual.
Photo: UF IFAS Wildlife

First, most who do only consume smaller species of snakes – but the list is still surprising. Spiders… spiders were on the list.  He specifically called out the black widow – who probably could kill a small snake, but indicated there were others.  Scorpions, centipedes, fire ants, carpenter ants, giant water bugs, crayfish, and crabs made the list as well.  Some of these may consume snakes only after they are dead – but some can kill small ones.

 

From the vertebrate world he mentions the larger salamanders (such as the hellbender), and other snakes (such as the short-tailed snake and the coral snake). There are several mammals including shrews, moles, and even the rodents themselves are consumers of snakes!  He describes how hoofed mammals (such deer, goat, and horses) do not consume snakes, but can completely destroy one by raising and stopping on them – leaving only small segments remaining.  They have found the remains of snakes in the stomachs of all predatory mammals but the snake’s greatest threat are birds… by a long shot.  Species from passerines to raptors have been known to kill and consume snakes.

 

What about venomous snakes – who consumes rattlesnakes and cottonmouths?

There are surprises here as well…

 

Bullfrogs… bullfrogs basically consume what they can get into their mouths but this includes snakes – and venomous ones as well (though they would be small ones). From the fish world, both the gar and largemouth bass are known to consume venomous snakes.

A coyote moving on Pensacola Beach near dawn.
Photo provided by Shelley Johnson.

Opossums are known to consume at least 12 species of snakes, including venomous ones. They also consume ticks, fire ants, and have a very low occurrence of rabies – a cool animal to have around.

Other mammal consumers of venomous snakes include raccoons, otters, fox, bobcats, coyotes, and black bears. It is understood they must take smaller members of the venomous snake population – but a snake control is snake control.

 

Most wading birds in our marshes consume snakes, including venomous ones, but it is the red-tailed hawk and the great horned owl that are the masters. Red-tailed hawks are known to consume at least 35 species of snakes, including venomous ones, and – unlike other snake predators – are a larger part of their diet, they seek them out.  Great Horned Owls consume at least 13 species, and venomous ones are on the menu.

 

From the reptile world we begin with the alligator, who has little problem consuming large specimens of both the rattlesnake and the cottonmouth. However, many are snakes… yes, snakes eat snakes and some consume venomous ones.  Coral snakes, coachwhips, and cottonmouths have been known to consume other snakes.  However, it is the Eastern Indigo and the Kingsnakes who actively seek out venomous species.  It is known that kingsnakes have a protein in their blood that makes them immune to the viper’s venoms – and it appears the vipers know this and avoid them.  It is not known whether the indigo is immune, but it is known they will seek out venomous snakes and consume.  Both of these snakes can take relatively large venomous species.

 

Of these two, it is the Kingsnake who is the “king” – consuming at least 40 species of snakes. However, both the kingsnakes and the indigo are on the declined.  The eastern indigo is currently federally listed as endangered – there has not been a verified record of one in the Florida panhandle since 1997.  However, there are anecdotal reports and we encourage anyone who has seen one to send us a photograph.  There is an active indigo restoration program going on in Alabama and in the Apalachicola River area.  These are the largest native snakes in the U.S. (about 8 feet) and, along with the six-foot kingsnakes, are frequently killed.  There is evidence that as the eastern kingsnake populations decline copperhead populations increase, and Vis versa.  Some areas near Atlanta are currently experiencing a copperhead “boom”.  Clearly, we should reconsider killing both the indigo and kingsnakes.  We also understand that habitat loss is another cause of their decline, particularly in the case of the indigo.

 

When looking at this list of snake consumers we see species that cause other problems – alligators, raccoons, coyotes, and bears have all have had their negative issues. But many we just do not like, such as the opossum, really cause us no harm and control snake populations.  Everything has its place in the local environment and not one species seeks out humans for the purpose of harming us – this would include snakes.  The negative encounters are for other reasons.  But for those who have a deep fear, or are currently experiencing high snake numbers, seeing one of the animals on this in the neighborhood could be a relief.

 

References

 

Graham, S. 2018. American Snakes. John Hopkins University Press. Baltimore MD. Pp 293.

O’Connor, M. 2018. Personal communication.

Bats in a Building: What Can You Do?

Bats in a Building: What Can You Do?

Bats sometimes move into buildings when they can’t find the natural structures they prefer (caves and large trees with cavities).

All 13 species of bats that live in Florida sleep during the day and feed on insects throughout the night. Most of these bats sleep in natural structures such as trees and caves. But when the natural structures these bats prefer are limited or vandalized, the bats may move into buildings.

Bats are a great help to us. Each of them consumes hundreds of insects per night. Bats save growers billions of dollars annually by reducing insect pests. Some of the pests bats feed on include the damaging fall armyworm, cabbage looper, corn earworm, tobacco budworm, hickory shuckworm, and pecan nut casebearer. But both bats and humans are happier when not sharing living spaces!

If you or someone you know has a group of bats living in a building where they are not welcome, you have options. The safe, humane, effective way to coax a colony of bats out of a building permanently is through a process called an ‘exclusion’. A bat exclusion is a process that prevents bats from returning to a building once they have exited at sunset to feed. This is accomplished by installing a temporary one-way door. This one-way door can take many forms, but the most common is a sheet of plastic mesh screening (with small mesh size of 0.125 x 0.125 inches or less) attached at the top and along both sides of the sheet, and open on the bottom. Another option is to install slick tubes (such as clean caulk tubes) to such entry points. These temporary one-way doors should be attached over each one of the suspected entry/exit points bats are using to get in and out of the building.

It is illegal to harm or kill bats in Florida. However, excluding bats from a building is allowed if you follow practices recommended by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). According to Florida law, all bat exclusion devices must be left in place for a MINIMUM of 4 consecutive nights with temperatures above 50⁰ F before each entry point can be permanently sealed to prevent bat re-entry. Also, it is unlawful in Florida to attempt to exclude bats from a building between April 15 and August 15, which is bat maternity season. This is when female bats form large colonies and raise young that are unable to fly for their first few weeks of life. If bats were excluded during this time period, young bats (pups) would die indoors.

Bats can be coaxed to leave a building by first identifying the bat’s entry points into the building, and then creating a temporary one-way door using plastic screening with fine mesh size over each of these entry points.

The steps for an effective exclusion are as follows:

  1. Identify the locations where bats are getting in and out of the building. Look for holes or crevices about the width of your thumb, often near the roofline, with brown staining on the exterior of the building and bat scat (guano, about the size of a grain of rice and brown in color) below.
  2. Fashion and install one-way doors at each suspected bat entry point. This can be done anytime between August 16 and April 14 – it cannot be done when bats have young pups, which is between April 15 and August 15.
  3. Leave all one-way doors in place for at least 4 consecutive nights with minimum temperatures above 50⁰ F so all bats leave through the doors and cannot re-enter. If any one-way door becomes ineffective during the 4 day period, begin again. You must be absolutely certain all bats have exited so you do not block any inside the building.
  4. Immediately after removing the one-way doors, permanently seal each hole to prevent bats from getting back inside.

For detailed instructions on how to conduct a bat exclusion, see this video that features interviews with bat biologists from the University of Florida, FWC, and the Florida Bat Conservancy: How to Get Bats out of a Building.

For additional information on Florida’s bats, visit University of Florida’s bat advice or FWC’s bat website.

Remember, if you have a colony of bats roosting indoors that you want to exclude, you must either act within the next few weeks or else wait until the middle of August to coax them out. Bat maternity season in Florida runs from April 15 to August 15, and during this time no one can attempt to exclude bats from a building.

The American Alligator: a new nuisance for the panhandle?

The American Alligator: a new nuisance for the panhandle?

I recently saw a photograph of an American Alligator (Alligator mississppiensis) crossing Perdido Key Drive on a heavy rain day.  This encounter would surprise some, and unnerve many.  The majority of the nuisance wildlife calls I receive are for snakes.  I have never received a call for an alligator but no doubt, my colleagues in central and south Florida have.  They certainly will with the landfall of Irma.  Just as humans relocate for storms, wildlife does as well.  High, dry ground is a need for all, and as our friends return to their homes after the storm, they will no doubt encounter creatures in the debris that can be a bit unnerving.

Alligator basking on a shoreline; photo: UF/IFAS Communications

“Nuisance” is in the eye of the beholder. Defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as being annoying, unpleasant, or obnoxious, a nuisance species is one we would rather not have in our yard.  Snakes are one of those.  Most of the people who call about snakes wish them no harm; they just do not want them on their porch or in their pool.  Venomous snakes in particular raise anxiety levels, especially when children or pets are around.  Though we do not get many calls on alligators, the feeling a homeowner would have if they found one in their driveway would be the same.

 

There were no calls on the alligator on Perdido Key. Actually, not everyone believed the photo to be legit.  I cannot verify it, but I did receive a call earlier this summer when an American alligator was found swimming and basking on a Gulf beach in Navarre and later near Ft. Pickens.  Though not as common as they are in central and south Florida, alligators do live here and they are found on our barrier islands.  Though encounters with them are rare, how should a homeowner deal with this potential nuisance? When I give a program on snakes I typically go over four points.  Let us go over the same with the alligators.

 

Is it venomous or not?

Obviously, this is not a question here – no crocodilian is venomous. They do have bacteria in their mouths that have caused problems for some who have survived an attack, but there is no venom.  However, in south Florida identification is still important because there is more than one crocodilian roaming the landscape.  The American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) is a native species found in coastal waters of south Florida, the northern reach of its range.  The Speckled Caiman (Caiman crocodylus) is an exotic species from Central and South America that is now found in freshwater canals and lakes of southeastern Florida.  It is likely that post Irma cleanup will include encounters with these two.  However, this is not likely for the panhandle – our winters are too cold.

 

How do I avoid encounters?

Generally encounters with nuisance wildlife occur for one of two reasons; (a) we have moved into their habitat or (b), they have come to us.

With the population of Florida growing at an ever increasing rate, currently 21 million people and a growth rate of 1.77%, development continues to expand into habitat where these animals have remained out of our sight for some time. As we continue to move into these habitats, encounters with nuisance wildlife will increase. They will be forced to visit our yards and pools.  It is no different with bears.

In other cases we, either knowing or unknowingly, provide food and shelter for them. Predators tend to select the easiest prey to kill, the ones that take the less energy.  Human development tends to provide habitat for vermin, such as rats, in concentrated areas.  This makes hunting for predators, such as snakes, bears, and alligators, much easier – and they will take advantage of this.

 

With alligators, (a) is more problematic than (b). Alligators have a natural fear of humans and do not typically seek us out looking for easy prey.  They seem to prefer to live and hunt away from us.  However, feeding alligators changes this and thus, it is a felony to do so in our state.  In 2015, the state legislature developed a tiered penalty system for assessing fines and charges.  As we continue to develop in areas where alligators live, it will be harder to avoid encountering them.

 

What do I do if I encounter one?

The general nature of wildlife is reacting to predators, prey, reproduction, and shelter. Alligators are top predators and feed on a variety of species.  They are opportunistic hunters, selecting prey they can easily swallow and are relatively easy to catch.  Much of these are smaller animals.  If the opportunity to make a large kill presents itself, they will – however, they will drown the creature and leave it underwater to soften the carcass so they can swallow.

 

The method of capture usually involves lying still and waiting for prey to move within range. If encountering an alligator the questions that come to mind are: (1) am I within range?  (2) are we near water? – remember they need to submerged large prey.  Keep in mind that small children and pets are easier prey and care should taken when in alligator habitat.

 

Resources provide the following suggestions if an encounter occurs:

  1. They have a nature fear of humans and will try to retreat. This is true. Provide an avenue of escape for the animal. Do your best not to corner it.  Remember it may react to pets and children as prey and could approach.
  2. If they hiss, they are warning you that you are getting too close and they are feeling threatened. Back away slowly. Sudden movements could be misinterpreted and they may defend themselves by attacking.
  3. Keep in mind they are fast moving for several yards, so do not think of them as slow and lethargic.
  4. Females guarding a nest may attack. They will charge to drive you off but typically return to the nest once you have moved to a safe distance (safe in their minds). Alligators build nests of leaf litter above ground in quiet water areas within their range. You may encounter one while hiking along shore. Avoid these nesting areas.

Alligator basking on the Escambia River; photo: Molly O’Connnor

And what if I’m bitten?

This question makes sense if you are talking snakes. With snakes, you are bitten and the snake withdraws.  So the question comes up, now what? Not so much with alligators.  Though alligators tend to feed on smaller and softer prey, as they increase in age and size, their skull structure adjust to where they can crush turtle shells and mammal bones.  Forces have been recorded between 12 and 9452 Newtons, depending on age.  When they bite they do not typically withdraw, but rather will drag you into water.  Do whatever you can to avoid being dragged into water.  Since 1948 there have been 388 alligator attacks, 24 were fatal.  That averages to 6 attacks/year statewide and about 1 fatality every 4 years – so it is not very common.  But remember, human development is encroaching and we will need to learn to live with them as our ancestors did when the animals were more numerous.

 

In Florida, an alligator is not considered a nuisance unless it is at least 4 feet in length. If you feel there is a nuisance alligator in your neighborhood you can call.

1-866-FWC-GATOR

 

References

 

American Crocodile: Species Profile. National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/ever/learn/nature/crocodile.htm.

 

Caiman. 2017. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. http://www.myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/managed/american-crocodile/caiman/.

 

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Swiman, E., M. Hostetler, S. Webb Miller, M. Main. 2017. Living with Alligators: A Florida Reality. University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science Extension Electronic Data Information Source (EDIS) publication WEC203.

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Wildlife Feeding Rules and Penalties. 2017. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. http://myfwc.com/news/resources/fact-sheets/feeding-rules-and-penalties/.