A Naturalist at Large
How to Catch a Gator
But why did we want a large, pesky female alligator at the lab? My research interest in alligators had begun twenty-six years ago when I caught my first one while doing a project on freshwater turtles. Because they are coldblooded, alligators reflect environmental conditions more directly than mammals and birds, whose body temperatures are regulated internally. But crocodilians are linked closely to birdsindeed, they are possibly the avians closest living relatives. I wanted to continue investigating the evolutionary and ecological mysteries of these reptiles.
Nest building and protection of the young are distinctive behaviors of the American alligator. All crocodilians lay eggs on land near the fresh to slightly brackish water of coastal marshes, swamps, rivers, and lakes. In early summer, the female alligator builds a large nestabout three and a half feet high and up to seven feet in diameterof mud and vegetation along the shore and deposits twenty to sixty white eggs before sealing the nest with more mud and vegetation. (The decomposition of the nesting material produces heat, which incubates the eggs at a relatively constant temperature.)
Indeed, this strong parental care in alligators indeed seems more closely allied to birds than to other groups of reptiles. A female turtle, for example, digs a nest, deposits her eggs, and returns to the water, leaving the eggs behind. Prior to egg laying, she stores energy and nutrients in her fatty tissues. These resources are allocated to each egg in the form of a large yolk reserve and provide all of the nourishment needed both for embryonic growth in the egg and for early growth and maintenance of the hatchling turtle.
Some years ago, Justin Congdon, my colleague at SREL, and I discovered that in alligator eggs the proportion of original egg lipids that remained in the hatchling was actually higher than that in turtles. Thus, the newborn alligator entered the aquatic habitat with more fat reserves than any species of turtle we had studied. In capturing the alligator and her babies, I hoped to find out more about alligators and their young.
One preeminent question a person should ask when wading through swamps and along lake margins in search of North Americas largest reptile is whether alligators attack humans. After all, male American alligators often grow to more than thirteen feet and females to nine feet. This particular six-foot animal was impressive, too; and enough rare and spectacular reports of seemingly unprovoked attacks on humans had made me aware that alligators can be highly dangerous. Plus, this alligator was a mother, and the good behavior record of mother alligators had been tarnished before, especially in situations when maternal instinct overrode a presumably innate fear of humans.
Alligators have a problem faced by a lot of usyou can pick your friends but not your relatives. Not that alligators have many friends, but as one of almost two dozen crocodilian species, they do have some notorious Old World kin. Instances of crocodiles eating humans in Africa and Indonesia mean that New World crocodilians will never be completely above suspicion. Yet American alligators, if unmolested, are shy and peaceful and, based on the evidence, do not consider humans a standard menu item. They unfortunately exemplify how a species can have its natural rights violated because of public misunderstanding.
With Tony being six four and Jeff six two, I anticipated no problem in handling this six-foot mother alligator. I even brought along my twelve-year-old son Michael to watch the show. When we got to the lake, our flashlights revealed the reflected red eyeshine of a pair of gator eyes. The big, gleaming eyes were surrounded by what seemed like a swarm of fireflies on the waters surfacetwo dozen pairs of little yellow eyes, those of the babies.
Our plan: We had a noose attached to a cable on a bamboo pole. When the mother came near shore, we planned to slip the noose over her head and pull it tightly around her neck. We would then put big rubber bands on her snout to keep the mouth closed while we carried her back to the jeep. Her plan: Swim around in the middle of the lake with the babies. And so she did. Our revised plan: Catch one of the babies. Since baby alligators in distress make a distinctive grunting sound, the mother should come close to shore to investigate. When she got close enough, we could snare her with the noose, and that would be it.
As the mother reached the shoreline, Tony got ready to jump down and use the noose. Only she didnt slow down at the waters edge. The next thing we knew, she was up on land with a startlingly loud hiss, lumbering toward Michael as fast as her chunky legs could carry her. Her heavy tail swished against the sweet myrtle bushes along the shoreline. The crushed leaves filled the air with a pleasant, perfumy scent incongruous with the charging, hissing reptile.
Michael was holding the baby up in the air and saying, Dad, Dad, what do you want me to do now? Being trained professionals, we each offered expert advice. Jeff said, Climb a tree! Tony said, Throw the baby in the lake! I said, Run! Responding to my attempt at parental care, Michael turned and disappeared into the woods, still holding this squeaking toy of an alligator. With a slight head start, a scared twelve-year-old can run a lot faster than an angry alligator, but the mother was still in pursuit.
Unfortunately, we all had good grips on the pole. The three of us were yanked down the slippery bank into the lake. The noose had slipped off, and the thought of being in the water with an irate, unfettered mother alligator impelled us to scramble out almost as fast as we had gone in. Michael emerged from the woods and returned the baby to the water. With some discussion about safer and more successful previous collecting expeditions, we slunk home in defeat.
Catching an alligator should have been no problem for trained professionals from an ecology lab, but this encounter left me with some questions about how well trained we were and whether we should really be classified as professionals. Research ecologists must be reminded occasionally that they do not know everything about animals, plants, and the environment. Alligators have effectively brought this to my attention more than once. They also serve as a strong reminder that biologists still have much to learn about the behavior, ecology, and evolutionary relationships of even the most familiar species.
Updated profile (August 2008): Whit Gibbons is Professor Emeritus, University of Georgia and Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL). He continues to manage the SREL Environmental Outreach and Education Program in which live alligators are frequent participants. He is author of twelve books on herpetology, including the 2005 winner of the National Outdoor Book Award: Snakes of the Southeast, 2005, Whit Gibbons and Michael E. Dorcas, University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA.
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