Biology Reference
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west and a century earlier Mr. Watson, of Peter Matthiessen's wonderful historical nov-
els, was gunned down by his terrified neighbors in a landscape as foreboding as any
ever invaded by white settlers. 12 Even now, with a bit of mental squinting, the place
feels wild and woolly. This afternoon Kelly, her mom, Sally, and I have visited Flamingo,
on Florida's southwest tip, seeking one of the largest living predators. I'd caught juven-
ile American crocodiles in Panama in the 1970s by eye-shining them from a canoe at
night, and, having as a teenager read of this species in Conant's Field Guide, I'd long
hoped to see one in the United States. 13 Today we've already encountered a twelve-foot-
er, basking with mouth agape and looking as wide as an overturned johnboat.
Two hours later and not far inland, the knobby backs of American alligators break up
reflected, low-angled sunlight on Nine Mile Pond. I'm expecting nothing more dramatic
than a passing cattle egret and the whine of mosquitoes, maybe a large-mouthed bass
breaching the tranquil surface or the snoring jug-a-rum of a bullfrog. Kelly and Sally
move off to the left, exploring shoreline, and soon my attention focuses on a gator fifty
yards out to the right, then on a much larger one behind it. Through binoculars the big
gator looks broad-bodied and oddly short snouted; it swims steadily toward the smal-
ler one. Within a couple of minutes the closer animal veers sharply parallel to shore,
and although it's mostly submerged, I discern the telltale rounded head and dull yellow
markings, remnants of juvenile coloration—a small adult Alligator mississippiensis.
As the larger crocodilian turns I see that the short muzzle was illusory, because most
of its head had been under water. It has a surprisingly long snout—and I've been hold-
ing my breath in suspense! Less than a minute later, they're a body length apart when
the big one lunges out of the water, mouth open, its distinctively narrow head and long
lower fourth tooth clearly visible: The pursuer is an enormous, olive-green Crocodylus
acutus, perhaps even bigger than the one we'd just seen at Flamingo! Both animals drop
from sight, with the gator soon reappearing twenty feet away and the aggressor surfa-
cing where it went under, facing the smaller one. The croc disappears again, exquisitely
tense seconds go by, and water explodes as dark torsos twist out so violently I scarcely
perceive scaly limbs and tails in the swirling melee. The gator rapidly swims away as
the croc turns back sideways for a couple of minutes, then sculls of toward its original
locale. Before the huge creature moves away it looks directly at me, and I have the spe-
cific sensation of being evaluated.
After the incident at Nine Mile Pond, we drive a few miles and stroll Anhinga Trail.
Visitor signage stresses that a gator's brain is walnut-sized and hints that this makes
them especially dangerous, as if a large cerebrum might prevent a half-ton reptile from
viewing us as prey or territorial intruders! Dusk approaches and we come upon sever-
al motionless gators in water along the boardwalk. With binoculars I scrutinize char-
acteristic external anatomy and wait in vain for so much as a blink, but I don't think
about brain size. Their valvular nostrils cycle back and forth between oval openings
and tightly closed slits, reminding me of how well suited these powerful animals are to
an aquatic lifestyle—they also have elevated, protuberant eyes, narrow crevices for ear
openings, and a laterally flattened, muscular tail. A transverse fold at the back of the
tongue prevents them from swallowing water while they seize prey, and of course there
are those terrible jaws and teeth.
Watching the gators, I never label them stupid. As with other crocodilians, they ex-
hibit visual and vocal social rituals, nest construction, and parental care—like birds,
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