(NY TIMES ) The story invited skepticism: With an alligator's jaws encasing her left knee, a 10-year-old Florida girl did the only thing that made sense, a parks official said.
"She was able to pry the alligator's mouth open and remove her leg," said Katie Purcell, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in a statement about the attack, which happened on Saturday (May 6) at Lake Mary Jane in Moss Park in Orlando.
But an expert on alligator bite force said Monday that it seemed unlikely a child would be able to force open jaws that could easily have conveyed more than 450 kilogrammes of force. Purcell, responding Monday to an email seeking clarification, said she had no further details to provide about the attack.
The girl, whose name was not being released as of Monday, suffered several puncture wounds to the back of her knee and lower thigh after she was attacked while standing in shallow water about 30 feet from shore, according to the official statement. She was treated by lifeguards and taken to Nemours Children's Hospital. The swimming area at the park has been closed until further notice.
The alligator was caught and killed later that day by George Walrath, of George Walrath Alligator Services and Processing. Walrath confirmed that the alligator was more than 8 feet long and that he caught it with a fishing pole. Spring and early summer are the most active times for the animals, and Walrath said Monday that he had already caught dozens of alligators this season - somewhere between 25 and 35.
The expert in animal bites, Dr Gregory M Erickson, a professor of anatomy and paleobiology at Florida State University, said that it was "very unlikely" that the girl had managed to pry the creature's jaws open in the way the official account described.
"If that alligator wanted to hold on, not much could have stopped it," he said.
He said it was more likely the animal could not find a good purchase on the girl's leg, allowing her to get away from it more easily.
Erickson, who has studied the bite force of various members of the animal kingdom, found that crocodiles and alligators have the strongest bites of any known animal.
The biggest alligators, significantly larger than the one encountered by the Florida girl, can deliver about 1,360 kilogrammes of bite force, he said. By comparison, lions bite with about 454 kilogrammes; spotted hyenas, which can crack bones, pack about 635 kilogrammes. (Humans, by comparison, deliver a measly 91 kilogrammes.)
Playing dead does not work with alligators, Erickson said, adding that anyone confronted with one of the creatures "should struggle as best they can" to get away.
"The more fight a person puts up, it's more likely that animals are not going to press the attack," he said, adding that no part of a gator's body is particularly vulnerable, despite conventional wisdom about aiming for the eyes and nostrils.
But he also emphasised that the odds of being killed by an alligator were quite small, despite the publicity that surrounded the death of a 2-year-old at Disney World who was dragged into the water by a gator in June.
According to statistics kept by the wildlife commission, there have been only 24 deaths from alligators since 1948, even as the animals have bitten humans close to 400 times during that span.
"They're more likely to attack at dawn and dusk," Erickson said. "But if you are going to swim in Florida waters, there's always the chance of an alligator attack."