In his more than 40 years of monitoring crocodiles in Florida, Frank Mazzotti has one early memory that especially stands out.
It was a hot and humid July on the coast of Florida in the 1970s, and the air was heavy with mosquitoes. Scientists still hadn’t figured out how to use radio transmitters in saltwater, so Mazzotti got a canoe, a good headlamp, and a tent, and camped out with the crocodiles. He would not rely on the transmitter but instead observe them, watch them swim, come and go.
He remembers one early morning, writing in his field book and smearing blood onto the page as a swarm of mosquitos feasted on his hand. He wrote: “The sun will rise soon.” The mosquitoes are going away. Thank God.”
Mazzotti has spent the decades since studying crocodiles, alligators, and many other reptile species in Everglades National Park and beyond. He’s a professor at the University of Florida and a member of the Croc Docs — a team of biologists and outreach specialists studying crocodilians, invasive reptiles, and threatened and endangered species in Florida and the Caribbean.
The lab’s catchy nickname can actually be traced to a profile of Mazzotti published by Sports Illustrated in the 90s in which the writer dubbed him “The Croc Doc” and “the best friend Florida crocodiles have.”
The Croc Docs’ work includes monitoring alligators and crocodiles to see how they are responding to Everglades restoration. They also monitor several invasive animal species, a major problem in Florida, like Burmese pythons, Argentine black and white tegus, and Nile monitors.
“What we do is very much like what TV portrays, except it’s the real thing,” Mazzotti told Business Insider. “We drive in boats, we fly in helicopters, we catch alligators and crocodiles and Burmese pythons. We do all of those things and we do it all safely and scientifically, and collect quality data by which people can make management decisions.”
One of the Croc Docs’ latest successes has been nearly eradicating invasive caimans from south Florida. Mazzotti said they accomplished this by defining an area and doing repeated and persistent surveys to remove and euthanize the caimans. The key, he said, was doing it consistently for as long as they did — about 10 years.
“You don’t ride in, shoot ’em up, get rid of ’em, and then leave and it’s done,” he said, adding that every effort where they’ve had a lasting impact has been the result of persistence.
So how does a team of scientists regularly wrangle, measure, and tag these reptiles while staying safe?
“Of course, the joke is, we do it very carefully,” Mazzotti said.
When catching crocodiles and alligators, there’s no room for error
Mazzotti says he has about 15 people working for him across the lab’s projects, and that there are very rarely — virtually never — any injuries.
When there is, he says it’s more likely for a plant like poisonwood or a sharp rock formation to get you than a crocodile. The last injury that sent someone to the hospital was an allergic reaction to fire ant bites.
“That’s the kind of thing that gets us in the field, not the charismatic, dangerous critters that you’re really worried about,” Mazzotti said.
And it’s not that the animals aren’t dangerous – they are. He said, “I don’t like to call them dangerous animals because they are defending themselves and we attack them. But I believe that this captures the essence of what is happening.” “They can hurt you.”
But the lab makes safety a top priority. They must undergo extensive training before they can go on their own and catch crocodiles and alligators. Every step, including noosing and securing the mouth of the animals, has to be approved.
A key thing Mazzotti emphasized is that the Croc Docs would never pull an animal onto a boat without first securing its mouth, contrary to some of the stunts you may see pulled by TV adventurers.
“When the animal gets on the boat, it can throw a fit and hit you in the face with its tail,” Mazzotti said. “He can’t bite you.”
Mazzotti said they’ve nailed down the safety measures so well that he’s more afraid while driving to a fieldwork site in his car than when he’s out catching the animals. He never forgets the high stakes.
“It’s like operating a nuclear power plant,” he said. There’s no way to make a mistake. You can’t say, ‘Sorry, let’s do it again.'”
Finding a way to do the work can be harder than actually doing it
While the idea of capturing a reptile sounds intimidating, it’s actually finding them that poses more of a challenge. Many of the species the Croc Docs deal with, like Burmese pythons, are rare and incredibly cryptic, with a very low probability of actually being spotted.
“So, how can you detect enough of them to remove sufficient numbers so that your efforts have an impact?” “How do you detect enough of them so that you can remove enough of them so that you can have an impact?”
Of all the work he’s done, Mazzotti said one of the most exciting discoveries he’s had was when he figured out how crocodiles were surviving in saltwater — by relying on freshwater that accumulated on the surface during the rainy season — because, he said, “by all accounts, they shouldn’t.”
These days, Mazzotti’s time in the field is much more limited. Mazzotti enjoys giving his employees the chance to be biologists. For most people who dream about being a biologist, he said, this work is exactly the kind of thing they dream about.
“All the work is now done by my team,” said he, commending the enthusiastic young biologists who work on the project, such as radio tracking snake pythons scouts or trapping tegus.
“They’re the ones going out and catching the alligators and crocodiles,” he said. “And getting bit by mosquitoes.”