Spatial ecology of the American crocodile in a tropical pacific island in Central America
Conservation of large predators has long been a challenge for biologists due to the limited information we have about their ecology, generally low numbers in the wild, large home ranges and the continuous expansion of human settlements. The American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) is a typical apex predator, that has suffered from all of these characteristic problems, especially the latter one. Humans have had a major impact on the recovery of this species throughout its range, even though most of the countries it inhabits have banned hunting. The last decade has made it clear that in order to implement sound conservation and management programs, we must increase our understanding of crocodile spatial ecology. However, in only two countries where American crocodiles have telemetry studies even been published. Herein we have characterized the spatial ecology of C. acutus on Coiba Island, Panama, by radio-tracking (VHF transmitters) 24 individuals between 2010 and 2013, to determine movement patterns, home range, and habitat use. We have then compared our findings with those of previous studies to develop the most comprehensive assessment of American crocodile spatial ecology to date. Females showed a higher average movement distance (AMD) than males; similarly, adults showed a higher AMD than sub-adults and juveniles. However, males exhibited larger home ranges than females, and concomitantly sub-adults had larger home ranges than juveniles, hatchlings, and adults. There was an obvious relationship between seasonal precipitation and AMD, with increased AMD in the dry and "low-wet" seasons, and reduced AMD during the "true" wet season. We found disaggregate distributions according to age groups throughout the 9 habitat types in the study area; adults and hatchlings inhabited fewer habitat types than juveniles and sub-adults. These sex- and age-group discrepancies in movement and habitat choice are likely due to the influences of reproductive biology and Coiba's precipitation cycle. Juveniles also showed distinct movement patterns and home ranges; however, with sexual maturation and development, these behaviors became more characteristic of adults and sub-adults. Ours is one of a very small number of studies that will allow future management and conservation planning to be based on the comprehensive integration of the spatial ecology of a Neotropical crocodylian apex predator.