What’s the Likelihood of a ‘Crawl’ Situation? UF Experts Dispel Alligator Attack Misconceptions

By Lourdes Rodriguez

DAVIE, Fla. — With hurricane season 2019 underway in Florida, and the once-endangered American alligator making its population recovery, a new horror film is setting the stage for the perfect opportunity to educate people about the real danger that alligators pose.

How likely are you to be attacked by an alligator during a hurricane or under any circumstance?

That is the premise of the summer movie “Crawl,” depicting unprovoked alligator attacks on humans as part of their feeding habits during a category 5 hurricane. The movie has drawn additional attention by news agencies posing the same question while posting highlights of past news stories that report sightings of alligators approaching or entering residential neighborhoods.

In turn, this has prompted researchers from University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), who specialize in the reptiles, to dispel the film’s fallacies about alligators and shed light on the research.

“Researchers who have observed alligator behavior during storms have not found any evidence of alligators actively hunting or seeking out prey during hurricanes in Florida,” said Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife ecology at the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center in Davie, Florida. “While alligators are heavily armored, they are equipped with sensitive receptors that can detect changes in pressure.”

Mazzotti, who is affiliated with the group known as the UF “Croc Docs,” notes that if a hurricane is approaching, alligators are likely preparing to “hunker down” in their natural habitats. Mazzotti also adds that it is more likely that alligators will move around after a hurricane, and with widespread flooding these native predators may show up in unexpected places like neighborhoods and parks.

“With the majority of Florida’s population living in close proximity to freshwater and coastal areas, there is increased potential for interaction with these native predators,” said Justin Dalaba, outreach coordinator for UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center.

“Unprovoked alligator attacks on humans are rare relative to other accidental death risks in Florida,” Dalaba added. “Unprovoked alligator attacks do occasionally happen and should not be downplayed; however, most are preventable, and the fatality rate is low.”

In this case, it is important to note the difference between unprovoked alligator attacks, when an alligator makes first contact with a human, versus provoked attacks where humans voluntarily make contact with or disturb an alligator some way.

In a 12-month report release released by the National Safety Council Report for 2017, there was one death attributed to a preventable alligator attack versus 4,809 poison-related deaths, 3,229 motor vehicle deaths, and 476 suffocations, by comparison to preventable deaths.

Meanwhile, the number of nuisance alligator reports in Florida appear to be increasing each year, with past research and reports from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission suggesting that a majority of complaints to request alligator removal are due to general fear of the potential danger of alligators, Mazzotti added.

There are several factors that may explain an increase in the number of adverse alligator encounters in Florida over the past decade, Dalaba adds. First, populations of American alligators are increasing and recovering. Second, as more people move to coastal and freshwater environments of Florida, the interactions between humans and alligators increases lending itself to an increasing number of nuisance alligator complaints.

Here are some recommendations to reduce the risk of an adverse encounter with an alligator in Florida:

  • Never feed an alligator (it’s illegal)
  • Keep a safe distance or avoid areas known to have alligators
  • Swim only in designated areas during daylight. Even better have a designated lookout to keep watch for alligators.
  • Keep pets away from water
  • Recognize the threat and take precautions to minimize

For more information on alligator encounters in Florida, the “Croc Docs” prepared a fact sheet that is available at bit.ly/2SgKFvU.

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS website at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media.

Lourdes Rodriguez can be contacted at 954-577-6363 or rodriguezl@ufl.edu.

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