Rambling American Crocodile Caught 350 Miles from Home

This photo, taken on July 8, 2013, shows an American crocodile caught in Pinellas County, Fla. Captivity is stressful for animals and the towel taped over the crocodile's eyes was intended to keep it calm. Before being released back into the wild, the reptile was put in a temporary holding box where it was kept cool with a fan and spritzes of water. (Image credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

An 11-foot-long (3.3 meters) American crocodile has made an epic journey around the tip of Florida. Born just south of Miami in 1999, it traveled at least 350 miles (563 kilometers) through the southern part of the state before it was captured recently outside of Tampa.

Last month, the crocodile was caught in Lake Tarpon and a tag on its tail revealed just how far it had ventured.

Wildlife officials had marked the roving reptile soon after it was born in the waterways around the Turkey Point power plant, a site at the southeast tip of Florida near the city of Homestead, said Gary Morse, a spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). [Alligators vs. Crocodiles: Photos Reveal Who's Who]

By 2008 the croc had traveled more than 100 miles (160 km) from its hometown. That year, authorities found the animal on a golf course in Naples, a city on the southwest coast of the state, and had to remove it.

"Subsequently, it decided to take a long journey," Morse told LiveScience.

The animal worked its way up the west coast of Florida, into Tampa Bay, through Pinellas County and ended up in Lake Tarpon.

Authorities had been aware that a crocodile was in the lake for some time. But unlike their African and Australian cousins, American crocodiles tend to be quite shy and avoid contact with humans. They are also less aggressive than American alligators in Florida, which is the only place in the world where the two, often-confused species share a home. (Crocodiles generally can be distinguished from alligators by their more slender build and more tapered snout.)

A state-contracted alligator trapper inadvertently caught the crocodile after a number of residents in the area had lodged complaints about large alligators, Morse said.

The animal was 11 feet long, 700 lbs (317 kilograms) in weight, and "in really good shape," Morse said. It was taken to a rehab facility near its birthplace and released back into the wild.

All told, the crocodile had moved about 350 miles from its point of origin. Wildlife officials don't exactly know why it traveled as far as it did, and Morse said he didn't know of any other tagged American crocodiles that have ever migrated such a long distance in the region. The species is typically found south of Fort Myers in the west and Miami in the east, meaning this wandering animal was far north of the average range. 

"From time to time, individuals of every species will roam outside their traditional habitat," Morse said in an email. "Making it all the more difficult to discern [the] reasons for its wanderlust, the crocodile has so far refused to comment."

There isn't much scientific literature on the travels of crocodiles in Florida, but "they are capable of significant movement," said Lindsey Hord, a biologist with FWC. Hord told LiveScience that captured crocs are sometimes relocated to other parts of the state, only to return to the place where they were found. Some picked up in Miami have returned there after being released in Naples, and FWC officials twice caught and twice relocated a croc that they coming back to Vero Beach, a city more than 130 miles (209 km) north of Miami.

American crocodiles can live for up to 70 years and are found in southern Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and North America. The once-dwindling croc population in Florida has seen a major comeback in recent years. In the 1990s, there were about 300 crocodiles left in the state, Morse said. Today there are estimated to be about 2,000. In 2007, the federal listing of the Florida population of American crocodiles was upgraded from endangered to threatened.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and Space.com since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.