Florida Men Keep Getting Attacked by Alligators. Scientists Have Worked out Why

Florida men make up the overwhelming majority of alligator attack victims in the Sunshine State—and in a third of cases they get bit because they try to feed these prehistoric reptiles.

In a study looking at the trends of American alligator bites in Florida since 1971, scientists have uncovered trends, including the victim demographic, events preceding an attack, and where attacks are more likely to take place.

In total, the team looked at 594 attacks. This included 310 unprovoked, 62 unintentionally provoked (where the person inadvertently obstructed or contacted the animal), and 219 provoked attacks. The latter normally involved alligator removal, transport, hunting, farming or exhibition—although in two cases it was the result of people "aggressively swimming toward larger alligators."

The team, from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, published their findings in The Journal of Wildlife Management.

They found that most victims—81.4 percent—were male. Over 93 percent were in the water or near the shore when they were bitten. Researchers also found that most of the alligators were male (76.9 percent)—contrary to the belief that attacks are often carried out by females defending their nests.

In about a third of cases (34.7 percent), people had attempted to feed the alligator before being bitten. Three people were bitten as they tried to rescue pet dogs that were being attacked in water.

Golf courses were also found to be alligator attack hotspots, with 14.1 percent of the total number of recorded attacks taking place on them. Of these, 75 percent were people diving to retrieve golf balls, 23 percent were golfers searching for lost balls near or in the water. "One golf ball diver was bitten on four occasions over a 15‐year period," the researchers said.

This gigantic alligator named Chubbs is frequently seen walking around a golf course in Florida ... 😊💗 pic.twitter.com/XKHNdL7hlI

— Scott ☘ (@Havenlust) May 18, 2019

During the study period, there were 22 confirmed fatal attacks. "Twenty of the victims died of either hypoxia from drowning by the alligator or exsanguination [loss of blood] from dismemberment," the researchers wrote. "Two victims incurred survivable injuries but one later died of a blood clot and the other died of a systemic inflammatory response syndrome. Alligators causing fatalities fed on the victim following the initial attack in 10 incidents."

There were a further 15 cases where alligator attack may have been the cause of death, but that could not be confirmed.

Another finding in the report dispelled the popular notion that alligators can run down prey on land. There were no reports where alligators had ventured further than one meter on land to seize a human victim. In 2006, there were reports of a 28-year-old woman who was attacked by a three meter alligator while out jogging at night. The scientists say it is highly unlikely the victim, Yovy Suarez Jimenez, was running or walking when she was attacked, but was probably sitting or lying near the edge of the water when she was seized.

"This case, and accounts generated from it, point out the problem with pre‐conceived beliefs about how alligators prey on people and how those notions can become entrenched into popular beliefs about alligator behavior," they wrote.

Previously, it had been suggested that alligator attacks are increasing because of increasing conflict with humans. However, the team that while the frequency of bites increased, the risk of being attacked "had not changed significantly." On top of this, they found "no significant trend in the frequency or risk of fatalities."

With the Florida population increasing, the team say their findings could be used to help reduce the risk of attacks by raising awareness of when people are at most risk. "People should avoid swimming or wading at night, which is the prime feeding time for alligators, and bites at night resulted in more severe injuries to victims," they conclude. "Dogs are likely to attract the interest of alligators, which can put both the dog and its owner at a greater risk of being bitten. People should avoid swimming or wading in water when exercising dogs.

"In aquatic areas adjacent to where children, pets, or livestock live, we recommend erecting fences, bulkheads, or boardwalks to create a barrier between the alligator and potential prey ... Alligators rarely bite people on land; the greatest risk is to people engaged in activities in the water or within two meters of the shoreline. Still, people should recognize that alligators could stalk them on land while they are conducting activities such as landscaping or lounging close to the shoreline."

florida alligator
A man places his hand in the mouth of an alligator in Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images