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The American Alligator Project

Jun. 1, 2018

Writer: Ben Taylor, bzt@uga.edu

Contact: Kimberly Andrews, kma77@uga.edu

Photo by: Maranda Miller

Despite their charisma and ecological significance, much remains unknown about the American alligator. A team of UGA researchers is aiming to fill in some of those critical knowledge gaps with an in-depth study of American alligators in the Okefenokee Swamp.

American alligators are among the most iconic animals in the southeastern United States. These prehistoric reptiles weigh up to a half a ton and reach lengths of 10-15 feet, and play critical roles for biodiversity in their freshwater habitats. As apex predators, alligators keep prey species like deer and raccoons in check and serve as regulators of their population sizes. They are also ecosystem engineers, creating critical habitat and refuge for other wildlife through the forging of mounded nests, wallows and burrows.

In the 1960s, American alligator numbers declined to the point where they were listed as federally endangered. However, through the combined efforts of state and federal legislation, habitat conservation, and the general decline in demand for alligator products, the American alligator has recovered and is now thriving, listed by IUCN as a species of “least concern.”

While the recovery of the American alligator marks success for conservationists and wildlife management, with it has come a rise in human-alligator conflicts. As development continues to expand, the frequency of these conflicts is increasing. Information is needed to improve alligator conservation and management in order to reduce human-alligator conflicts.

Kimberly Andrews, assistant research scientist in the Odum School of Ecology, is leading a new project that will address conservation and management concerns within the Okefenokee Swamp by integrating wildlife research and public engagement. Andrews is one of only a handful of “triple dawgs” in the ecology program at the University of Georgia, receiving her B.S. in ecology in 1999, M.S. in conservation ecology and sustainable development in 2004, and Ph.D. in ecology in 2010. She has more than twenty years of experience in reptile conservation and environmental education.

As part of the American Alligator Project, a partnership with the Okefenokee Swamp Park, Andrews and her team will research the population dynamics, reproduction, recruitment and behavior of American alligators using satellite tags and game cameras.

While the immediate goal is to gain knowledge about the ecology of the American alligator, the project has wider-reaching goals of promoting the conservation, appreciation and exploration of the swamp. The American Alligator Project will engage with the visitors of the Okefenokee Swamp Park by introducing them to ecological research and conservation concerns within the park.

The project will incorporate innovative technologies to address research questions and as a means of “bridging the gap” between conservation issues and the general public’s knowledge about alligators.

American alligators are significantly affected by human interactions. Often, the general public misunderstands and fears American alligators. Technology, such as satellite tags, advanced cameras and drones, presents less-invasive alternatives allowing the public to interact, study and engage with alligators and other wildlife.

In addition to connecting the public with wildlife, the project will also connect students with scientific applications of technology, which is timely given the rise in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education in classrooms.

Andrews has been working closely with her research technician, Kristen Zemaitis, who helped develop the research project and establish the partnership with Okefenokee Swamp Park. Zemaitis aims to continue her study of American alligators for her master’s thesis research.

Generous support for the project comes from the Okefenokee Swamp Foundation, a subsidiary of the Okefenokee Swamp Park, a non-profit organization. 

“We are excited to partner with the Odum School of Ecology on this cutting edge research project that will advance scientific knowledge and understanding of alligator behavior,” said Dr. William Clark, chair of the Okefenokee Swamp Park Board of Trustees.  “We really need additional funding to move this project forward.”

For more details about the project and to make a donation that will be used toward standing equipment needs, please see https://t.uga.edu/3Xu.

For information about how to sponsor one of the tracked Okefenokee alligators, please contact kzemaitis@uga.edu.


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