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Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Alligator Attack

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When I was a 4th year medical student at Duke, I completed an elective rotation in pediatric surgery at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville. It was an outstanding experience, working with some of the most dedicated and innovative pediatric surgeons in America.

The work hours were long – our typical day began at 5:30 AM, when we made rounds on our patients, and then extended nearly to midnight with all of the activities in the operating room, on the wards, in the E.R., and in the outpatient clinic. So, the only times I was able to leave the medical center to catch a workout was in the darkness. Since my method of exercise was to jog, running at night wasn’t so bad, since the daylight sun and heat combined with often stifling humidity to make exercising pretty miserable. At night, it was just warm, not steaming hot, so I could tolerate it.

I jogged around “Gator Lake,” a small body of water that was home to real live alligators. They weren’t shy, so everyone kept a watch out for them, like joggers around Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park do for bears. There were tales of pets and people who had encountered ‘gators in these parts, and came out on the losing end. Every so often, a wandering reptile met an untimely end at the hands of local animal control enforcement.

This past week, a naked man was reported to have been caught by a large alligator that nearly severed the victim’s arm. According to the press, the man had been wading in Lake Parker in Lakeland, Florida during the same hours when I used to do my jogging. The difference is that he may have been under the influence of an illicit drug, and he entered the water.

Here is information about crocodiles and alligators:

Crocodiles (genus Crocodylus) and alligators (genus Alligator) can be ferocious aquatic reptiles. Considered to be less sluggish than alligators, crocodiles may attack and severely injure a human. C. porosus, which ranges over an extensive geographic area, including India, Sri Lanka, southern China, the Malay Archipelago, Palau, the Solomon Islands, and northern Australia, has been claimed to be a prolific man-eater. Black caimans (Melanosuchus niger), prevalent in South America, have attacked humans. Estimates of human fatalities may be exaggerated based on isolated reports of atrocities committed by this beast. An adult crocodile devours prey much larger in size than a human. According to one report, the stomach of an Australian estuarine crocodile contained the remains of an aborigine and a 4-gallon drum containing two blankets. At a length greater than 20 feet (6 m) and a weight exceeding 2500 lb (1,136 kg), the crocodile can travel in water at a speed of 20 mph (32 km/h) and can charge a short distance over land at 10.6 mph (17 km/h). The enormous jaws and canine teeth can bite with sufficient force to sever an outboard boat propeller. However, the teeth are not well suited for tearing apart or chewing, so most prey is crushed into size and form suitable for swallowing and consumption. Some prey items are killed and allowed to rot, which makes them easier to swallow. Most crocodiles are content to eat fish, turtles, kangaroos, and wild pigs. However, feeding in freshwater rivers and adjacent land have introduced them to cows, horses, and humans, who are attacked when they cross rivers, catch fish, draw water, or work in the fields. The majority of attacks occur on persons swimming or wading in shallow water at twilight or at night. A crocodile attacks by grasping its prey in its powerful jaws and dragging it underwater, where it drowns and dismembers it with head shaking and a constant twirling motion (“death rolls”).

The American alligator Alligator mississippiensis most commonly attacks in the water but will also attack on land. These attacks seem to be motivated by feeding. Most alligator attacks in the U.S. seem to be on swimmers, waders, or fishermen. During the period 1948-2003, there were 326 alligator attacks resulting in 13 deaths in Florida.

When approached by an alligator, it is important to prevent the animal from opening its mouth, as the muscles elevating the jaw are relatively weak in comparison to the enormous crushing force obtained by closing the jaw. It is also important to avoid the powerful, lashing tail. The most important advice is to keep a safe distance at all times, and never intentionally put yourself in harm's way with any wild animal.


photo by Paul Auerbach

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Tags: Bites & Stings

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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