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Extant archosaurs in the news

Here's an article from today's New York Times about
the North American Salt Water Crocodile ... a living
dinosaur (heh heh).

                      * * *

Copyright 1999 The New York Times

MIAMI -- The airboat moved through the dark and rain
with a sound like rolling thunder as a powerful
searchlight stabbed into the murky shallows of the
nuclear power plant's cooling canals, turning the calm
water a shimmering gold. The beam of light settled on
a pair of red, glowing eyes, and the airboat rumbled
up to a fat, gray, salt-water crocodile, eight feet

She was a female, waiting in the shallows for her
instincts to tell her that her babies, inside eggs
buried in the black dirt of the bank of the canal here
at the Turkey Point nuclear plant, were ready to
hatch. Joe Wasilewski, a South Florida wildlife
biologist piloting the airboat, stared down at the
endangered crocodile with something very much like
"We won't catch her," Wasilewski said as she whipped a
tail that could crack a grown man's legs and
disappeared in the gloom. Later, as the rain slowed
and the mosquitoes matched it, drop for drop, in the
darkness, Wasilewski spotted a young crocodile in
shallow water. Leaning over the bow, he snatched it
from the canal. 

The crocodile, a year old and two feet long and with
teeth like tiny fish hooks, lay like a sleepy kitten.
"Beautiful," Wasilewski said, before weighing,
measuring, and testing the computer microchip,
previously planted under its hide, that allows
biologists to identify it. 

Then the young crocodile, a North American Salt Water
Crocodile, part of a species slowly clawing its way
back from the edge of extinction, plopped back into
the shallows and vanished into a dark specked with
those glowing, reddish eyes. 

"Finally, it's working," Wasilewski said of a
management program to save a modern-day dragon that
many people, even those who live beside it, do not
know exists. 

The species, which some biologists say could be as old
as 200 million years, once swarmed in countless
numbers around the southern peninsula of Florida, the
only place in this country where they are found. But
in the last 100 years, developers destroyed the
crocodiles' habitat with mall parking lots, two-car
garages, sea walls and poolside patios, erasing
mangroves and marshes. 

In the first half of this century, poachers turned
much of what was left of the species into luggage, so
that by the 1970's as few as 200 or 300 had survived.
Now, through not only the efforts of conservationists
but also construction that these crocodiles have
claimed as their own, like placid golf course ponds
and the nuclear power plant canals, they now number
more than 600 in the salt water around South Florida. 

These are not dirt-common, fresh-water alligators,
which number more than 1.5 million in Florida, but a
more exotic cousin, a creature with long, menacing
teeth and a thinner, tapered snout, much different
from the shovel-shaped snout of the alligator. They
are similar in size, but crocodiles are more agile. 

The big crocodiles that Wasilewski pointed out in the
cooling canals glided in graceful, S-shaped curves
through the water, then vanished with blinding speed
when they felt threatened. 

But like the alligator, whose numbers have increased
so much that it has spilled over into condominium
ponds and parking lots, salt-water crocodiles are
doing so well that they, too, have begun to slink
beyond the remote havens like Turkey Point, south of
Miami, and are creeping into the yards of Floridians. 
"One was way up the Miami River, eating a lady's
ducks," said Todd Hardwick, an alligator trapper who,
more and more, answers calls to remove nuisance
alligators only to find a crocodile instead. "The last
one I saw, there on the Miami River, had a cat in its

As their numbers teetered on extinction, crocodiles
found refuge in the warm, salty water that filled some
170 miles of cooling canals at Turkey Point, where the
placid water, filled with turtles, fish and crabs,
suited them. 

"An alligator will live and breed in a drainage ditch,
but a crocodile is particular about its habitat, and
even more particular about nesting," Wasilewski said. 

Now, some 60 crocodiles, fully one-tenth of the
species's survivors, live here. But others found the
placid waters of golf course ponds suitable, and even
nested in sand traps. And though they feed mostly on
fish and other things in the water, pets become easy

There are no recorded crocodile attacks on people in
South Florida, probably because the species, which is
described by wildlife experts as shy and timid,
usually, was so rare. 

"Ten deaths were attributed to Christmas trees last
year, and seven deaths to balloons," said Wasilewski,
who has a contract with Florida Power, which owns the
Turkey Point plant, to study and to look after the
crocodiles. "Some day, someone's going to get killed
by a croc." 

They have been seen in the nicest places. They have
been spotted in Gables by the Sea, one of the Miami
area's finest residential neighborhoods, and at golf
courses on Key Largo and on Key Biscayne. 

Wasilewski and other wildlife experts hope that the
crocodiles will gravitate more toward less populated
parts of the peninsula, where they are less likely to
come into contact with people. 

At Turkey Point, it is almost time for the baby
crocodiles to hatch, and the mothers drift in the
water nearby, waiting. Wasilewski searched through the
berms for nests, hoping to find a nest already
hatching, but it is too early. 

When it is time, the mother will crawl ashore and pat
the soil around the nest -- "She remembers about where
she laid them, but not exactly," said Wasilewski --
until she hears an answering cry from under the soil.
She will then help dig the babies out as they are

"She puts her ear to the soil and listens," Wasilewski
said. He watched it happen, once, and calls it a
beautiful thing. It is one of the reasons he admires
the creatures, and wants them to survive. 

Wasilewski says he believes that the crocodiles know
him, know his voice. 

"They hate my guts," he reasoned. " 'Here he comes to
put another rope around my neck,' " he said, smiling. 

They do not know that he means well. 

                        * * *


"Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans."
-- Bismarck, when asked what would be the likely cause of the next great war

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