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Crocodiles Are Recovering in the Everglades

Sep 23, 2014 03:05 PM EDT

A record number of crocodile hatchlings have been discovered in the Everglades National Park this summer, showing that efforts to restore crocodile habitats in the region are working well.

Despite what urban legend says of the Everglade areas, the region has been only sparsely populated with crocodiles over the last few decades. In fact, back in the early 1970s, wild American crocodiles were listed as federally endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) - a status that persisted for most crocs until about 2007, when it was determined that the hearty animals had bred enough to simply be considered "threatened" in Florida state.

So what was to blame for the crocodile decline? According to The Associated Press, prior to the 1970s, a number of drains had been dug in the Everglades, designed to drain marsh water for agriculture. Not only did this shrink natural marshland coverage - where the crocs like to breed - but it also increased the salinity of local waters.

Studies since that time have found that salty waters have a dangerous impact on the growing rate of these freshwater reptiles. Regular surveys and assessment of Everglade populations conducted by "The Croc Docs" through the University of Florida in partnership with the FWS and US Geological Survey found that growth rate and prevalence of the animals was directly influenced by the salinity of local waters.

The surveys also found that ongoing efforts to improve freshwater conditions, which mainly involve the prevention of salt water intrusion and freshwater loss to tide along costal canals, may be working.

Now, according to the University of Florida (UF), the most young crocodiles ever recorded, 962 hatchlings, were captured, marked, and released in the Everglades, showing a stunning surge in populations from last summer, when only 554 hatchlings were found.

Frank Mazzotti, a UF Agricultural Sciences expert and crocodile monitor, is quick to caution that this isn't exactly proof that restoration efforts are working, though he says he's encouraged by the data.

"What we hope is the lesson is that ecosystem restoration efforts can work," he said. "If the signal is correct here, we can monitor that improvement by looking at ecological responses  - and crocodiles make good indicators."

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