Alligators Can Confuse Kids as Prey, Store Victims

Authorities say the crocodile that attacked a 2-year-old boy in Florida likely thought the boy was a dog or raccoon.

<p>Photo: American alligator. Credit: Donald W DeLoach Jr<span></span></p>

Alligators are opportunistic feeders, but don't normally view humans as prey, according to wildlife experts.

Authorities in Florida suspect that the estimated 4 to 8-foot-long alligator that attacked a young boy at Disney World's Seven Seas Lagoon yesterday likely confused the victim with a dog or raccoon, which alligators are known to eat.

The "lagoon" is actually a man-made body of water, but it connects to Bay Lake.

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"People -- even small people -- are not their typical prey," Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is spearheading the search for the two-year-old child, told USA Today.

According to the commission's fact sheet on alligators, "Their diets include prey species that are abundant and easily accessible. Juvenile alligators eat primarily insects, amphibians, small fish, and other invertebrates. Adult alligators eat rough fish, snakes, turtles, small mammals, and birds."

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Children are small mammals, of course, but as for great white and other large predators, alligators usually become habituated to their typical non-human prey. If a shark or alligator kills a human near shore, though, there is often an effort to kill the predator since the particular individual could hurt humans again if it has become habituated to do so.

That is why animal experts worry about people feeding alligators, great whites and other large predators since the animals can come to associate humans with food, which is not their usual behavior.

Data from news reports as well as a survey published in the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine indicate that alligators have been responsible for close to 600 attacks on humans, with at least 26 of those leading to the victim's death. These incidents have been reported in the United States since 1928, when the attacks began to be officially documented.

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Ricky Langley, author of the report, mentioned, "Injuries from encounters with alligators may range from minor scratches and punctures to amputations and death. The larger the alligator, the more likely that serious injury will occur. As the human population encroaches on the habitat of the alligator, attacks and nuisance complaints will continue to occur."

In terms of what usually happens to victims, Tanuj Kanchan of Kasturba Medical College explained in a new paper that, "In crocodilian attacks, the bodies may be decomposed and scavenged as a result of the crocodilian habit of storing corpses underwater to allow softening and easier removal of tissues."

Kanchan's paper, published in the Encyclopedia of Forensic and Legal Medicine, further explained that matching a victim's injuries to the suspect alligator or crocodile can happen via tooth marks.

He wrote that "bite marks produced by marine predators are distinct and can lead to easy identification of the animal. The tooth marks of crocodilians may give a clue as to the nature of the attacking animal, as the arcade of puncture wounds may be highlighted by the position of the fourth premaxillary tooth, which may be seen in an animal with its jaws opposed."

Since the Disney site is relatively contained, however, Wiley and his team are removing and euthanizing alligators for analysis. So far, they have killed four alligators from nearby Bay Lake, but have found no evidence yet that any were involved in the boy's disappearance.

Disney has since closed all of the beaches at its resorts out of caution.