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Influence of salinity on relative density of American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) in Everglades National Park: Implications for restoration of Everglades ecosystems

March 2, 2019

The status of the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) has long been a matter of concern in Everglades National Park (ENP) due to its classification as a federal and state listed species, its recognition as a flagship species, and its function as an ecosystem indicator. Survival and recovery of American crocodiles has been linked with regional hydrological conditions, especially freshwater flow to estuaries, which affect water levels and salinities. We hypothesize that efforts to restore natural function to Everglades ecosystems by improving water delivery into estuaries within ENP will change salinities and water levels which in turn will affect relative density of crocodiles. Monitoring ecological responses of indicator species, such as crocodiles, with respect to hydrologic change is necessary to evaluate ecosystem responses to restoration projects. Our objectives were to monitor trends in crocodile relative density within ENP and to determine influences of salinity on relative density of crocodiles. We examined count data from 12 years of crocodile spotlight surveys in ENP (2004 to 2015) and used a hierarchical model of relative density that estimated relative density with probability of detection. The mean predicted value for relative density (λ) across all surveys was 2.9 individuals/km (95% CI: 2.0 – 4.2); relative density was estimated to decrease with increases in salinity. Routes in ENP’s Flamingo/Cape Sable area had greater crocodile relative density than routes in the West Lake/Cuthbert Lake area and Northeast Florida Bay areas. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that restored flow and lower salinities will result in an increase in crocodile population size and provide support for the ecosystem management recommendations for crocodiles, which currently are to restore more natural patterns of freshwater flow to Florida Bay. Thus, monitoring relative density of American crocodiles will continue to be an effective indicator of ecological response to ecosystem restoration.