The American Alligator – Researching an Icon in the Okefenokee Swamp

By Kristen Zemaitis, Masters Student & Kimberly Andrews,PhD

  • $8,745.00

    Funded. Goal: $20,000.00

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The charismatic American alligator plays several essential roles in the ecosystem. These apex predators serve as crucial regulators of prey species. Simultaneously, they function as ecosystem engineers through the creation of dens and wallows which provide important aquatic refugia for numerous other wildlife. Aside from their impressive ecological role, American alligators are models for our wildlife management and conservation practices as they are the first species to be listed and recover from being federally endangered through the Endangered Species Act. Since alligator populations have recovered there is now a need for monitoring and the development of management practices to ensure that our alligator populations remain healthy and viable for the long-term future.

By donating today, you can support the technological innovation in researching the population, reproduction, recruitment, health,  and behavior of American alligators.

Alligators and other crocodilians play a valuable role that is unique within the reptile community as nurturing and dedicated mothers. This field research project invites the public to follow the amazing journey of mother alligators and their offspring through the deployment of satellite tags on reproductive females and advanced wildlife cameras next to nesting sites and throughout the swamp. This novel use of technology to unobtrusively observe alligators, whose behavior is easily influenced by human interaction, is significant and unique.

In addition to tracking American alligators, we will also be taking blood and tissue samples from the animals we catch. This will allow us to assess their health by looking at levels of contaminants and metals that may bioaccumulate in these apex predators. We will also be able to gain more insight into the relatedness and reproductive success of alligators within the swamp by analyzing their genetics using blood and tissue samples.

By supporting this initiative, your gift will not only provide funding for research opportunities, but will also allow the public to participate in experiential learning and environmental education.

This project will directly engage park visitors through exposure to ecological research and conservation education pertaining to critical wildlife species within the swamp. Although large predators – like American alligators – perform crucial services in an ecosystem, the importance of their role is often misunderstood and ultimately feared. Educational surveys reveal gaps in public knowledge and student curricula to assess the best methods for educating people on aspects of alligator ecology. Furthermore, this project offers an outlet for students of all ages to explore scientific applications of technology, including advanced cameras, satellite tags, drones and GPS units during a time when STEM education is becoming an increasingly popular part of curriculum.

Interested in seeing how our trained team of biologists safely catches adult alligators? Checkout this short video by Maranda Miller! Alligator Capture and Data Collection

Why is this project important?

The Okefenokee Swamp, home to over 620 species of plants and 420 species of wildlife, is the largest contiguous blackwater swamp in the United States. The American alligator is perhaps the most captivating and iconic species of the swamp, attracting visitors from around the globe. The partnership between the UGA Odum School of Ecology and the Okefenokee Swamp Park (OSP) will enhance ecological research that develops conservation education messaging.

These results will inform better management practices regarding habitats for American alligators and human-wildlife conflict reduction. Although the immediate focus of this project is to study ecological aspects of the American alligator, a broader objective is to encourage exploration, appreciation, and conservation of the swamp ecosystem and the numerous species that inhabit it.

Meet the Alligators:

AUDREY LAINE was the first alligator to sport a satellite tag in the Okefenokee Swamp Park! She reproduced in 2017 and is still caring for her pod of approximately 8 hatchlings who made it into 2018!

 

SALLY is our largest female who successfully reproduced in 2017 and 2018.  Here, she is protecting her 2018 pod of hatchlings, sporting a satellite tag on the back of her neck.

 

CYPRESS is our most elusive and smallest tagged female. She is still caring for her pod of hatchlings from several years ago and we expect her to nest again soon!

Your tax deductible gift will help fund satellite tags for more alligators within the Okefenokee Swamp! To sponsor an alligator, please contact the researchers!

What your contribution will support:

  1. Professional development for a Master’s student and several undergraduate interns
  2. Novel research, education, storytelling, and use of technology as a means of encouraging stewardship and ecological exploration of the largest contiguous black water swamp located in the U.S.
  3. Development of sustainable management practices for a species that was once listed under the endangered species act
  4. Progression of a conservation and education-oriented nonprofit (OSP)
  5. Research equipment necessary for this project
    • Satellite tags that will allow for transmission and sharing of real-time movement data
    • Game cameras for monitoring alligator nests, female guarding behavior, hatchlings, and predation events
    • Batteries and SD cards for wildlife cameras
    • Monthly subscriptions for satellite tags and live camera feed
    • Survey & mark-recapture equipment for population assessments, individual identification, and collection of tissue samples.

Meet The Researchers

Kimberly Andrews earned her Ph. D in Ecology (2010), an M.Sc. in Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development (2004), and a B.S. in Ecology (1999) from the University of Georgia (UGA). Andrews is an Assistant Research Scientist employed as Faculty at the Odum School of Ecology with over 20 years of experience in reptile conservation and environmental education. Her experience with crocodilians includes the American alligator, spectacled caiman, and American crocodile.

Kristen Zemaitis graduated from Grand Valley State University in 2015 with a BA in animal biology. She has worked with Dr. Andrews to establish a partnership with the Okefenokee Swamp Park and develop this research project. She is now pursuing a M.S. in Ecology with UGA’s Odum School of Ecology and is excited to continue working on this project for her thesis.

 

GivingQuestions

Contact Allison Walters | allison.walters@uga.edu | 706.542.3425

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