This is Florida's second fatal alligator attack since October 2015, but before that, the state had avoided a deadly encounter for seven years—the longest stretch since the state started keeping records on such attacks. In response, Disney has closed access to the beaches and lagoons throughout its Orlando park.
Florida has an estimated alligator population of more than a million, based on some 6.7 million acres of suitable habitat, including rivers, lakes, swamps, and marshes.
Despite alligators’ prevalence, the chances of getting bitten by one are minute: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that a state resident’s odds of being seriously injured in an unprovoked alligator incident are roughly one in 2.4 million.
Orange County Sheriff Jerry L. Demings said Wednesday that the boy's remains were found intact near the sandy beach where he was last seen alive with his family. His likely cause of death was drowning, after the alligator dragged him into the water.
Wildlife officials have yet to identify the alligator that killed the child, but have captured and killed five alligators found in the lagoon near the beach. Forensics work, including analyses of the alligators' bite marks, will determine which alligator was responsible—or if the alligator in question is still in the lagoon.
"Although we have some closure, the investigation is ongoing," says Nick Wiley, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "We're going to make certain that we have the alligator that's involved...or we're going to continue to look for the alligator until we find the right one."
American alligators have lived on Earth for more than 150 million years, and males average 10 to 15 feet (three to 4.6 meters) in length.
The sheer number of alligators in Florida represents a conservation success story. From the late 1800s through the 1950s, American alligators were hunted to near-extinction for their meat and hide, which was considered a high-quality leather. Historical estimates suggest that at least six million alligators were killed in Florida and neighboring Louisiana from 1880 to 1955. In 1967, the American alligator was placed on the endangered species list, and after two decades of concerted effort, populations rebounded, leading to its removal from the list in 1987.
As Florida's human population has grown alongside the thriving alligators, the frequency of attacks has increased. In 2015, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimated that the frequency of serious bites increases at a rate of about 3 percent per year.
From 1948 to April 2016, Florida has endured 383 recorded incidents in which a wild alligator bit a person seriously enough to require at least first aid, according to a database maintained by the commission. The database does not include incidents in which humans were handling or harassing alligators.
Of the 383 incidents, 257 are classified as “major bites,” meaning that they required medical attention beyond first aid. Twenty-three of the 257 major bites ended fatally, either from the alligator attack directly or from secondary infections. Of the fatal attacks, at least 15 occurred when the victim was swimming, snorkeling, or wading in the edges of a body of water.
There has been only one confirmed fatality since 2008: the October 2015 death of a 61-year-old man killed while snorkeling in Blue Spring State Park, in Orange City, Florida. The seven-year stretch had been Florida’s longest without a fatal alligator attack.
Alligators are opportunistic carnivores, preferring to go after readily available and easily overpowered prey. The reptiles generally don’t attack for reasons other than food and rarely pursue humans.
In fact, alligators tend to be naturally afraid of humans, but they may lose that fear—and associate humans with food—when people feed them. For this reason, it’s illegal in the state of Florida to feed wild alligators.