GAINESVILLE, Fla., May 20 (UPI) -- Scientists are concerned about the presence of Nile crocodiles in Florida -- a presence they say is likely underestimated.
Between 2000 and 2014, researchers from the University of Florida captured and studied four non-native crocodiles in South Florida. Their DNA analysis suggests at least two are Nile crocodiles, Crocodylus niloticus, from South Africa.
The biologists recently reported their collection and identification work in the Journal of Herpetological Conservation and Biology.
"The odds that the few of us who study Florida reptiles have found all of the Nile crocs out there is probably unlikely," Kenneth Krysko, study co-author and herpetology collections manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said in a news release.
Genetic similarities suggest three of the four invasive crocs came from the same source. One survived in the wild for nearly four years, proving the species can adapt to the habitats of southern Florida.
Researchers believe the crocodiles' most likely point of entry into the ecosystem is through Florida's large international pet trade. The Sunshine State's pet trade and tropical environs make it a hotspot for invasive species.
"My hope as a biologist is that the introduction of Nile crocodiles in Florida opens everyone's eyes to the problem of invasive species that we have here in our state," Krysko said. "Now here's another one, but this time it isn't just a tiny house gecko from Africa."
Nile crocodiles are generalist meat-eaters, willing to take down and consume whatever is easy and available -- whether that's a baby hippo or an unsuspecting human. Between 2010 and 2014, Nile crocodiles attacked 480 people in Africa, killing 123.