Croc Catchers: Researchers tracking baby crocodiles in South Florida

(WSVN) - When you think of large reptiles in South Florida, you think gators. But, it’s hatching season for the rare American crocodile. 7’s Brian Entin tags along with researchers for our special assignment report — Croc Catchers.

The sun is setting, and before long, it’s pitch black.

Nighttime is not exactly when you want to be walking into a national wildlife refuge named Crocodile Lake.

We’re with University of Florida researchers near Key Largo. And this is what they’re looking for — baby crocodiles.

Brian Entin: “And they are pretty docile?

Seth Farris, University of Florida researcher: “Yeah, he just wants to get away.”

The crocs hatched just a few nights earlier…

Seth Farris: “This is the egg that the crocodiles come out of.”

A night-vision camera captures nature in action. The mother digging the baby crocs out of their nest. Then she gently carries them in her mouth to the water’s edge.

Jeremy Dixon, Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge: “At that point, the hatchlings are pretty much on their own.”

And that’s where these researchers come in. They use kayaks and climb through mangroves, fighting off mosquitoes, to catch the little crocs, carrying the babies to buckets, measuring them, weighing them and clipping their tails so they can identify the crocs in the future.

Seth Farris: “It’s kind of like clipping your fingernails, but just a little deeper than that.”

Tracking them is important work because until 2007, American crocodiles were endangered.

They’re still federally protected. The only place they live and breed in the United States is right here in South Florida in Crocodile Lake, Turkey Point and portions of Everglades National Park.

Researchers estimate there are only 2,000 crocodiles in Florida, compared to 1.3 million alligators.

Of all the hatchlings, only about 10 percent of them survive. That is because most of them are eaten by birds, crabs, and fish.

Seth Farris: “That is one of the reasons why she has such a large collection of eggs when she lays her nest, so hopefully at least some of them can make it.”

Researchers are studying how many survive and trying to change the reptiles’ bad rap.

Jeremy Dixon: “I would say the biggest misconception is people think ‘crocodiles’ and they think of what they see on the Discovery Channel.”

American crocodiles are a different species than the man-eating crocs found in Africa.

There are no known cases of an American croc killing a person in the U.S.

The night we were out, researchers caught 49 hatchlings, quickly released them back into the 6,500 acre refuge, where years from now, another round of researchers will have something bigger on their hands.

To learn more about the American crocodile and the National Wildlife Refuge, take a look at the links below.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

University of Florida:
crocdoc.ifas.ufl.edu/projects/alligatorscrocodiles

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service:
www.fws.gov/refuge/crocodilelake

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