Environment

Rare crocodile nest discovered on Virginia Key

These baby American crocodiles, the first ever documented hatching on Virginia Key, were measured and tagged by biologists from the University of Florida and a team from the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science in July.
These baby American crocodiles, the first ever documented hatching on Virginia Key, were measured and tagged by biologists from the University of Florida and a team from the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science in July. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

To the surprise of biologists, a Virginia Key beach restored to lure sea turtles has become an incubator to some unlikely babies: rare American crocodiles.

Last month, the baby crocs hatched from the first nest ever documented on the urban island that links the city of Miami to Key Biscayne. After the crocs incubated for 84 days, a team from the University of Florida and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration helped tag 13 crocs on July 26.

“To get a nest where we’ve never had one before is very cool,” said UF biologist Frank Mazzotti, who plans to alert U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials.

Home to the county’s oldest wastewater treatment plant, the island has been an ongoing battleground between developers, who want to spruce up the old Marine Stadium, host an international boat show and build a parking garage, and conservationists, who have been working to restore the island’s native habitat.

In 2014, Miami-Dade County and the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science began clearing out Australian pines and digging up fill dumped on a dune on the 1,200-acre island’s east side hoping to lure turtles. NOAA biologist Wendy Teas spotted the croc nest earlier this year while searching for turtle nests. Turtles historically nested on the island but were driven away by years of urban abuse, including fill dug up from the Port of Miami and native plants cleared to make way for the a boat basin, restaurants and research labs.

Crocs have been seen in the area — including regular sightings near the Crandon Park Marina — but never a nest, Mazzotti said. The closest nest was at Matheson Hammock, about 10 miles south, Mazzotti said. Still, the nest doesn’t necessarily mean adults live near by — crocs live in saltwater marshes and canals or rivers but will travel dozens of miles to dig nests on higher ground for babies. Mazzotti’s team has tracked one female that travels annually about 30 miles to nest in Islamorada.

In 2007, crocs were removed from the endangered species list and declared a rare success, due largely to efforts at three sanctuaries in Florida, the only state where they are found. Biologists think about 2,000 exist today, including a large population at the cooling canals at Turkey Point.

The appearance of the nest, Mazzotti said, is proof that restoring even small patches of native habitat can help struggling species.

“It underscores the ecological importance of urban refuges like that,” he said. “Right in the middle of urban Miami we have a little bit of nature that we really should strive to keep rather than pave over.”

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