Stalking and finning to a close encounter
The Tampa Bay area appears on its way to becoming a mecca for odd critters of late — odd for our region, at least, both in water and on land.
American crocodiles have made an appearance in northeastern Manatee County. Coyotes are roaming the wilds and not-so-wilds of our eastern neighbors, too. And a whale shark, the largest of fish, has been nuzzling divers in the Gulf of Mexico off Pinellas County beaches.
Weird and wild wildlife for our part of the world.
Manatee County had an American crocodile take to its shores earlier this year when a 9-footer was spotted in a pond near the upper reaches of the Manatee River. Crocs were once a common sight in much of peninsular Florida, but hunters pretty much wiped them out around the beginning of the 20th century. This local croc sighting was the first outside of South Florida in decades.
Crocs are slightly larger than alligators, lighter in color, have a more rounded snout and have some teeth that overlap the reptile’s upper lip. Habitat is salt or brackish water, rather than the gator’s preferred freshwater haunts.
The old salts have the distinction of being the largest of reptiles found in the United States.
Crocodile populations diminished to about 200 due to hunting and habitat depreciation. Thanks to federal protection from hunting and some massive habitat restoration projects in South Florida, the croc population has swelled to more than 2,000.
As the population grows, expansion of the croc’s territory has followed.
Let’s see: big reptile, carnivorous, lots of teeth, likes saltwater — could we be talking a new breed of dangerous beachgoer looking for a summertime buffet?
Perhaps, but probably not.
Crocodiles are a bit more timid around humans than their alligator cousins. Despite the killer crocodile legends of Australia or the South Pacific, the American croc pretty much leaves people alone. There have been no reported croc-human interactions in Florida; in comparison, alligators have killed 20 Floridians since 1973.
Remember that the population difference between the two critters is huge, with 1.25 million gators in the state versus 2,000 or so crocs.
Crocs do seem to have a fondness for dogs and cats, though, as a change in their normal diet of snakes, raccoons, other reptiles and birds.
The Manatee County crocodile escaped capture attempts and was last seen heading toward the Manatee River.
Coyotes are also moving into our area. Actually, they’re found in all 67 counties in Florida but Monroe, and predictions are that the Florida Keys could eventually support the critters.
It seems coyotes were first introduced to Florida in the 1920s as something for hunting dogs to chase. Some eluded the dogs, found a home in the scrub and started making little coyotes, as many as a half-dozen per litter per year, mostly in the center of the state.
Coyotes also migrated to Florida from the usual western U.S. states and took up residence in the vast forests of the Panhandle.
The canines aren’t as large as you would imagine, with big males weighing in at about 40 pounds. They’re grayish brown, have coarse fur and can run up to 40 mph.
They’re also wily critters. Coyotes are problem solvers, not unlike the cartoon character, and the biggest problem they face is finding dinner. Their solution for what to eat lies is the garbage cans so handily found in subdivisions near their wilderness homes.
As with crocs, coyotes don’t much care for humans, although there have been many reports of the dogs staring at humans at dawn and dusk, their prime time to roam and hunt, plus a few attacks over the years.
And they have a fondness for pets. One woman in Collier County lost 26 cats to coyotes. Small dogs are also something of a delicacy.
But coyote experts are quick to point out that the canines are the poster child for an opportunistic eater, and almost anything poses as an opportunity for a coyote. Sea turtle eggs, rabbits, squirrels, berries and even watermelon on the vine are all coyote food.
If coyotes have migrated to the Sunshine State from places as far west as Wyoming and California, there seems little doubt that they could decide to go to the beach. After all, Anna Maria Island is home to some foxes. Could coyotes be far behind?
Whale sharks are the largest fish found on Earth at upwards of 46 feet. The big fish are in almost all the world’s warm-water oceans. They take their name from the first people who spotted one and described it as being as big as a whale and shaped like a shark.
Unlike sharks, though, these critters are filter-feeders. Lunch is plankton, small fish and an occasional mackerel that gets scooped up in their big maw. The only harm they can cause humans is to roll on one, or gum a person to death – both unlikely occurrences. They do seem to be curious about swimmers, though, and don’t mind being approached or approaching a diver to see what that other-world thing is doing in its environment.
Whale sharks are also sort of a psychedelic-colored fish. Their skin is marked with a yellow checkerboard pattern in spots and stripes over a gray background. The marks are distinct on each shark, making identification easier.
They’re mostly deepwater critters, and can dive to 2,300 feet or so. Most of the time, though, they’re found near the surface, slurping up plankton. They’re also solitary, although whale sharks have been seen clumped up where there is a good food supply.
And whale sharks have no problem coming close to shore. One has been spotted several times in the past few weeks in the near shore Gulf off Pinellas County, and there have been several reports of the big fish off the Island over the years, basking at the surface.
Females bear live young, up to 200 at a time, all about 2 feet long at birth. The fish reach sexual maturity at age 30 or so, and can live from 60 up to 100 years.
The Florida Museum of Natural History has a grim forecast for the fate of whale sharks.
Whale sharks have fins. Fins are prized in east Asia for soup, at upwards of $100 a bowl. The museum’s assessment of whale sharks, both for its meat and its fins:
“At present, commercial fisheries for whale sharks are limited, but may expand from an increased demand for food products. In Taiwan, approximately 100 whale sharks are taken annually. The whale shark meat fetches a high price in this country, and this fact has stimulated larger harvests over the last years. Fishing for this shark also occurs in the Philippines … providing food for the local fishing communities.
“Whale shark fins are sold in the Orient, especially in Hong Kong. Occasionally, whale sharks are captured accidentally along the coast of India. Sometimes the flesh is eaten and the liver oil is utilized for waterproofing wooden fishing boats and other appliances, for the manufacture of shoe polish and as a treatment for some skin diseases. The processing of whale shark fins has also been reported in India.”
Here’s a fish that grows to more than 40 feet in length and can live for upwards of 100 years, and we’re killing it to make soup?