The presence of Nile crocodiles as recently as two years ago has been confirmed in a place very far from the species' native Africa: the Everglades in South Florida.
Thanks to DNA analysis, researchers from the Florida Museum of Natural History say in a new study that three juveniles of the species (Crocodylus niloticus) found in the Everglades between 2000 and 2014 were indeed Nile crocs.
The big question is: How did three crocodiles of a species native to sub-Saharan Africa end up making a living in the Sunshine State? And, as a key followup: Are there more?
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As for the latter, Kenneth Krysko, herpetology collections manager at the museum and co-author of the study, said it was "unlikely" that the three crocodiles were the only ones.
"We know that they can survive in the Florida wilderness for numerous years," Krysko said in a statement. "We know that they grow quickly here and we know their behavior in their native range, and there is no reason to suggest that would change here in Florida."
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Their presence would certainly not be welcome. Nile crocodiles are enormous (up to 18 feet long) predators and will devour a wide range of birds, fish and mammals.
If they multiply, they could leap to the top of the invasive species list in Florida, displacing the Everglades' current champ, the Burmese python.
Humans, too, would have cause for concern. The scientists note that in recent years Nile crocodiles have killed more than 100 people in Africa and attacked nearly 500.
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How did they get to South Florida? The researchers aren't sure. DNA analysis showed that the three juveniles were related, but they could not be linked to Nile crocodiles held in any U.S. zoos.
Whether they were brought to the state illegally and then escaped or were set free remain open questions.
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The scientists say there's no evidence yet that the crocodiles have taken hold in their home state, yet they suggest a risk assessment be performed that games out the possibility of the animals spreading.
"My hope as a biologist is that the introduction of Nile crocodiles in Florida opens everyone's eyes to the problem of invasive species that we have here in our state," Krysko said.
Krysko and his colleagues have published their findings in the Journal of Herpetological Conservation and Biology.