Scrawny Alligators Reflect Everglades' Many Problems
In the Florida Everglades alligators are in trouble. The reptiles are scrawny, weighing 80 percent of what they should. The alligators grow slower, reproduce less and die younger.
Researchers are trying to understand why the Everglades' iconic species is in decline and what it means for the ailing river of grass.
Laura Brandt’s head swivels, the flashlight on her forehead slicing through the night’s blackness. Two alligator eyes appear in the spotlight, red and gleaming like lonely Christmas lights on the watery prairie. Brandt points the airboat in their direction.
She slows the boat, and Frank Mazzotti reaches over its side, fastening a wire noose around the alligator’s neck. The animal flails among the saw grass of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in south Florida.
Brandt watches over Mazzotti’s shoulder as the alligator struggles, ready to secure the animal’s snout with electrical tape.
“The idea is to get the animal tired before we bring it into the boat so it’s easier on us.”
The alligator spins in its death roll.
“That’s their natural instinct of both trying to get away, fighting, and when they catch prey that’s one of the things that they do,” Brandt says.
Brandt and Mazzotti are part of a 15-member team of researchers from federal and state agencies and the University of Florida who for more than a decade have ventured into the wilderness of the Everglades to catch and study alligators like this one.
“We’ve seen some alligators in some years that have been basically skin and bones. And when we get concerned is when we see multiple alligators like that,” Brandt says.
Their research is part of the world’s largest environmental restoration, a $17 billion effort spanning a region twice the size of New Jersey. They’re monitoring alligators to see whether the restoration is working.
Alligators are an indicator species of the Everglades, a watershed supporting dozens of federally threatened and endangered animals and the drinking water for more than a third of Floridians. The reptiles are responsive to environmental changes and influential as top predators and ecosystem engineers, forging holes, trails and nests that provide habitat for other plants and animals. They are easy for decisionmakers and the public to understand and identify with.
The researchers’ findings indicate that as the Everglades’ 30-year restoration reaches its midpoint the watershed still needs help. Mazzotti says human interference with the river of grass’ historic flow of water has disrupted the animals’ food supply.
“The Everglades food machine is broken.”
He says draining the Everglades upset the hydrology alligators depend on, and that is why the Everglades’ restoration is aimed at resurrecting a more natural flow of water. The watershed once spanned nearly all of south Florida. Today it is half of its former self, sustained by a complex system of canals, dams, water control points and pump stations.
“We’ve screwed up that pattern that produced and concentrated food, meaning alligators are getting skinnier,” Mazzotti says.
Mazzotti and Brandt hoist the alligator into the airboat. Brandt reaches for a shoebox-sized plastic container labeled, Laura’s Gator Box.
“OK, so in Laura’s catch box the first thing we pull out is the tape measure.”
Brandt has been counting alligators in the Everglades for nearly 20 years. She records the animal’s measurements on a paper data sheet. Mazzotti holds the gator secure.
The alligator stretches six feet long. Next Mazzotti inspects the animal’s tail. He has studied alligators and crocodiles in the Everglades for nearly 40 years. The watershed is the only place on Earth where the reptiles as old as dinosaurs co-exist.
Mazzotti wears a stained khaki shirt and red bandana around his neck, handy for wiping hands soiled by alligators or guarding against chilly evenings like this one. He points to where the animal’s tail begins. This female is in good condition, unlike the many scrawny alligators the researchers have seen.
“This is really the telling thing right here. See how the tail swells out a little bit? That’s where the fat deposits are. You asked what does an animal look like when it’s skinny. There would be no fat. This would all be sunken in, and you would be able to see the tail bone with like just the skin hanging on it and sunken in on the sides.”
Brandt and Mazzotti dangle the alligator from the hand-held scale using a rope.
The alligator weighs 50 pounds. It groans.
Brandt marks the alligator by removing scales from its tail. She gathers some environmental data like water temperature, and then the researchers free the animal.
“So here’s the last step in the safe release. You bring the animal up and put it in the water, and you don’t release the mouth until the animal is out of the boat. So at no time when that animal is in the boat is the mouth unsecured, and as long as the mouth is secured it can’t bite you,” Mazzotti says.
Together the team of researchers catches and releases about 200 alligators a year, each one a reptilian measuring stick of the river of grass’ restoration.
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