They’re caiman, and they aren’t a welcome site in Florida as one of the numerous invasive species inhabiting the Sunshine State.
With recent studies and action underway, scientists are hoping to completely eradicate the invasive caiman—and this goal may not be too far off.
The Caiman Invasion
The introduction of caiman to Florida can be traced back to the 1970s when the leather industry brought them in.
Leather, which had been previously sourced from alligators, could no longer be produced due to them receiving federal protection in 1967 in response to their rapidly dwindling numbers.
To meet the growing demand for leather, Americans turned to caiman. In just 1970, over 112,000 caiman were imported from Central and South America, their native habitat.
Although many of the caimans ended up on farms where they were raised for leather, hatchlings were often times sold as pets. Irresponsible owners would release into the wild where they established a breeding population over several decades.
The invasive caiman competed with the indigenous crocodilians for food and territory. In areas where the caiman population was thriving, little to no crocodiles or alligators were reported to be seen, leading to the conclusion that the native reptiles were being outcompeted and crowded out.
Not only do caimans threaten the ecosystem by competing with native species, but they also pose a greater threat to humans. They’re known to be more aggressive than native crocodilians when cornered, and in addition, they are particularly problematic in the Air Force Base in Homestead, Florida. Caiman crawls from the surrounding waterways onto the runways to sunbathe, causing worry about an accident occurring if a plane collides with one.
In 2012, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee identified caiman as a priority species of removal, but thankfully since then, a team of researchers and specialists, known as the Croc Docs, are ready to tackle these problematic crocodilians.
The Croc Docs have dedicated their time and efforts towards researching and executing plans to eliminate the caiman from the Everglades, gathering information and statistics to better understand the invasive reptiles. However, their work isn’t limited to just research.
Driving through the Everglades at night, the Croc Docs can spot the crocodilian’s reflective eyes under a spotlight, and from there, the hunt is on. Stalking the caiman through the swamp and wrestling a band around its jaws is no easy task, but a necessary step towards caiman removal. Once successfully captured, the invasive caiman is taken to be humanely euthanized.
Through these patrols and captures, the team can calculate the encounter rates of the caiman, and the statistics are showing promising results.
The catch rates have been on a steady decline since 2020, and patrols to areas previously teeming with caiman now only turn up one or two. In these same spots, native wildlife including crocodiles and alligators are gradually returning.
Whether these crocodilians are getting smarter and learning to avoid detection or the more likely possibility that the Croc Doc’s efforts have been working, the results are still uncertain, but researchers are optimistic for the complete successful removal of the invasive species.
Sources: NY Times, Univ of Florida, Wildlife.org, myfwc.com