The person who claims to have taken the photograph, Florida native Richard Jones, told National Geographic it is. But at least one biologist and some photographers have doubts about its veracity.
If it was real, it was definitely a once in a lifetime shot.
It all started on Sunday, when Jones told several local media outlets that he took the picture while walking in the Ocala National Forest ( map) with his family. He says by email his son must have startled the raccoon, which then scurried onto the alligator in the nearby Ocklawaha River. (See "How to Photograph Wild Animals [Without Getting Hurt.]")
"As for people questioning the photo, I doubt they've ever spent any time in the wilderness of Florida, he writes. Alligators and raccoons interact constantly, as do all of the animals in the swamp."
However, these interactions are no Disney movie. They usually involve the species eating each other, says Jason Waller, a biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Alligator Management Program.
Raccoons eat eggs and baby alligators, and when alligators get bigger, they will eat raccoons of any age.
That's why Waller is skeptical of the photo, since it depicts abnormal behavior for both animals.
"In general, when a raccoon is startled near water they'll usually run through the woods or maybe even go up a tree," he says. "They usually try to avoid jumping into water."
Waller also says alligators are skittish and will aggressively thrash when touched. "The idea of an animal jumping on its back and it just casually swimming along like that, that's very unusual." (Also see "Alligator 'Feeding Frenzy' Video Shows Teamwork.")
If the raccoon did jump on the alligator, it was probably just a fluke, Joseph Travis, a biology professor at Florida State University, says in an email.
Watch a video of life from an alligator's perspective.
"One can imagine the animal scampering atop what perhaps seemed a muddy spit of land," Travis says.
According to Jones, it was over quickly: "The gator calmly slid into the water and the raccoon ran back onto the shore."
Hany Farid, a professor of computer science at Dartmouth College, checked Jones' photograph for any foul play. Farid also analyzed the authenticity of the weasel woodpecker photo, which went viral in March.
He said that because the lighting on the raccoon, alligator, surrounding water, and trees appear to be consistent with a scene illuminated by the sun, it doesn't seem Photoshopped. "It would have been very difficult to fake the reflection since it is intertwined with the branches."
Mallory Benedict, an assistant photo editor for National Geographic, agrees: "The way the light is hitting the back of the raccoon and the shadows in the foreground are consistent with the direction the light is coming from."
Watch clever raccoons free themselves from a garbage bin.
While Farid and Benedict see no signs of manipulation, they can't say that it wasn't staged. If there were multiple images of the animals in different poses, they might deem it legitimate. So far, Jones has not provided any other images from the scene to the media.
The Ocala Star Banner, a local newspaper, initially refused to publish the image due to questions about its authenticity.
"The raccoon seems out of proportion—too big—compared with the alligator," the paper wrote on their website Sunday night. "Even zooming in, you can't tell whether the raccoon has feet...It almost looks like a taxidermy piece."
"If it was real," adds Waller, the state biologist, "it was definitely a once in a lifetime shot."
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