Alligator Education and Research
Partnering with Okefenokee Swamp Park (OSP), ecologists at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant are studying the behavior of American alligators located in the swamp.
There are 24 species of crocodilians in the world, and 10 of those are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). One major cause of population decline is human activity, including overharvesting and habitat loss from increasing development. In addition, as large predators, crocodilians are commonly viewed as threats to people and their livelihoods. It is critical to understand how these reptiles are adapting to live in human-dominated landscapes.
This partnership advances the conservation and management of alligators through the collection of research data in the field which informs educational messaging shared with the public and decision-makers.
Satellite Telemetry: Using satellite tags from Telonics, researchers have been tracking the movements of seven adult alligators within the Okefenokee Swamp Park for one year. They have observed long movements between the OSP into the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (ONWR) system by males and localized movements of females who stay close to their nests and babies.
Behaviors and Interactions: Researchers deployed game cameras around alligator nests and locations where frequent interactions among sexes or age classes could be observed. They are able to witness maternal care, courtship between males and females, and interactions with other species, such as bears and otters.
Population Inventory: To inventory the alligators and observe activity patterns within the OSP, researchers conduct regular surveys, ranging from multiple times weekly to every couple of months, year-round. These surveys generate approximate counts of alligators and how different individuals are active at different times of day and night, during different seasons and under changing environmental conditions, such as temperature and water level.
Demographic Assessment: Researchers investigate the relative abundance of alligators by gender and age. So far, their research has shown that adult females and their guarded young, ages one to three years, are typically the most visible while the males are on the move and the mid-size subadults are more covert. However, there are documented fluctuations in these relative abundances over the project period that are attributable to social structure, presence of dominant alligators and environmental occurrences, such as drought.
Tagging and Sample Collection: Alligators of all sizes are captured throughout the OSP. Researchers collect tissue from each of them and blood from the majority, size permitting. Some tissue is used for research objectives executed in this project (see Diet and Ecotoxicology below), but the majority of samples are banked for a genetics project, which will be launched in 2021.
Diet and Ecotoxicology: Researchers conduct lavage sampling as a non-lethal method to collect stomach content and assess diet variability among individual alligators according to age, class, sex, season and habitat. Additionally, they conduct ecotoxicology analysis of the samples to determine mercury (Hg) levels in Okefenokee alligators at the OSP and the Folkston entrance to the swamp.
About the Okefenokee Swamp
The Okefenokee Swamp is a 438,000-acre, shallow, peat-filled, freshwater wetland straddling the Georgia-Florida state line. The Okefenokee is the largest blackwater swamp in North America, serving as the headwaters of the St. Mary’s and Suwanee rivers. Most of the swamp is located in Southeastern Georgia and is considered one of the seven natural wonders of the state. The name “Okefenokee” stems from Native American language meaning “bubbling water” and has lent to the reference to the swamp as the “Land of the Trembling Earth.” Most of the swamp is protected by the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and the Okefenokee Wilderness. Due to its physical attributes and immense size, the Okefenokee Swamp has an array of habitats including cypress swamps, peat bogs, marshes, open lakes and wooded hammocks. The diversity of ecosystems encompasses an assortment of over 620 plant species (including four carnivorous plant species), 39 fish, 37 amphibian, 64 reptile, 234 bird and 50 mammal species.
In 1945, 1,200 acres of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge were sub-leased to the Okefenokee Association, Inc. Included in this piece of land was Cowhouse Island, which became the core of the Okefenokee Swamp Park, a tourist destination located in Waycross, Georgia. The Okefenokee Swamp Park currently serves as the site of UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s research within the swamp.
Support Research Efforts
Join us on our journey with the alligators. Donations, large or small, can help support:
- Genetics lab testing that helps determine the ancestry and relatedness of the alligators
- Field equipment used to safely capture and study alligators
- Cameras used to observe alligators in the swamp
- Satellite tags used to monitor the movement of alligators