by Whit Gibbons

June 26, 2016

If you read newspapers, watch TV or follow Twitter and other social media, you know that a child recently drowned in a lake in Florida where alligators lived. I have received questions about the incident and alligator ecology.

Q: What you do you think about the recent attack on the child at Disney World in Orlando and the subsequent killing of all the alligators captured in the lake? Was that really necessary? Should there be signs warning about the presence of alligators?

A: The death of a child is indisputably a tragic event. This is no exception. The responses, however, are a complicated mix of numerous agendas involving sociology, psychology and economics as well as ecology. For some people, no justification exists for preserving a particular wild animal, or even other members of the species, that kills a person.

Other people will side with the animals, placing responsibility on humans to avoid such situations. Whatever the case, emotional responses and public relations efforts can override what some might consider practical approaches following such disasters.

As for warning signs, I heard one suggestion that every lake in Florida with an alligator should have a sign. An impossibility since virtually every body of water in the state could have alligators.

Putting up signs at the border would be about as useful: Welcome to Florida. Beware of alligators. Educating the general public about alligator ecology and behavior would be a more reasonable - and effective - approach.

Q: Where do alligators live in the United States and is the range expanding northward due to global warming? Could alligators live around Washington, D. C.?

A: Alligator populations occur naturally in all coastal states from the Carolinas to Texas and in Arkansas and southeast Oklahoma. They are not currently found in Virginia, although the natural range may have once extended to the Great Dismal Swamp.

The northern limit of alligator populations is northeastern North Carolina. Small alligators that people have illegally released have been reported from many parts of the country, but outside of their natural range, most do not make it through the winter. I am not aware of any definitive studies that document northern or inland geographic distribution of the species in response to climate change.

Nonetheless, alligators are more prevalent in some regions than they were several decades ago, mostly due to protective regulations that were begun with the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s. This protection allowed alligator populations to increase in size and expand their range.

If global warming resulted in higher winter temperatures or reduced snowfall, alligators would be able to survive some places where they do not now because of "icing behavior" in which they stick their snouts up through a layer of ice on lakes to breathe.

To survive cold winters, alligators must keep their body under water. Presumably they cannot do so effectively in northern regions where winter ice is too thick. Alligators might become more prevalent in northern limits of their range if ice cover were to be reduced. A population of alligators in the Potomac River in D.C. would not be particularly surprising under those circumstances.

Again, not to minimize the personal suffering of families affected by deaths from alligators, but wild alligators injure fewer humans in a decade than dogs, cats and horses do in a week.

Why do alligators harm even a few humans? Most injuries are caused when humans have fed the alligator (a foolish and illegal activity), invaded its territory (including moving into it permanently) or threatened its young.

When humans choose to inhabit a place where they might come in contact with alligators or any other large animal, wild or domestic, each person should be responsible for knowing where not to tread.

And it goes without saying that it is the responsibility of parents and guardians to watch out for children under their care when alligators are known to be present. You can't expect an alligator to do so.

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