Contact: Bonnie Strawser - 252-473-1131
May 16, 2013
On-going Study to Answer Questions about Alligators on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
"Are there really alligators on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge?" is an often-asked question by refuge visitors. Refuge staffers have always been aware of the presence of alligators on the refuge, but higher priority needs and a shortage of staff time and funding limited the refuge's ability to document the population more thoroughly. Hopefully, an on-going study by Dr. Stephen Dinkelacker from Framingham State College in Massachusetts will soon provide more information about local alligator populations.
In the early 1990s, a 10' 10" alligator was captured in Whipping Creek and held for observation because it was behaving strangely. "But we didn't have a scale big enough to weigh it," remembers Bonnie Strawser, 33-year refuge veteran. That alligator recovered and was released back into Whipping Creek. Other than a few late 1980s or early 1990s surveys and recent surveys conducted by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, most other alligator documentation over the years has been anecdotal in nature.
Dinkelacker is continuing a study to determine population status and dynamics of the American alligator within Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and vicinity over a 4-5 year period. The study focuses on Milltail Creek Lake, Whipping Creek, and Swan Creek Lake, but will extend to other sites. The first objective is to determine population demography in the Refuge. Biologists are gathering data using a combination of spotlight surveys and snaring or snagging for size/proportion figures and mark/recapture studies. All captured alligators are marked by removing a dorsal tail scale. Nest surveys are conducted and eggs are counted, measured, and returned to the nest along with a temperature sensor. A second objective is to develop a predictive model describing the population. Finally, the study will attempt to describe habitat preferences of alligators. Most of the work occurs at night on the refuge.
Imagine the surprise and delight for two new refuge interns who "happened" on the crew of biologists just as they were collecting data from a large alligator captured in Milltail Lake. That alligator measured 11.5 feet and had a huge bite mark on his tail. Refuge Biologist Dennis Stewart said, "Yes, that implies a bigger one bit this one. I wouldn't be surprised to find a 14-foot 'gator out there."
Two main attractions on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge are the black bears on the Murphy Peterson Wildlife Drive and alligators on the paddling trails. "Seeing these critters on a regular basis is getting pretty predictable," added Strawser. "People call and ask us where to go to see them, and we can usually direct them. We have a lot of happy visitors, no doubt!" Alligators are seen frequently on the paddling trails, as well as in the canals along the Wildlife Drive.
Of course, when viewing wildlife, it's always important to put safety first. Remember never to feed wildlife or approach them. Safe wildlife observation must occur from a distance far enough away for wildlife not to feel threatened and to allow an escape route both for the wildlife and for the observers.
For more information about Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, visit www.fws.gov/alligatorriver or visit the National Wildlife Refuges Visitor Center on Roanoke Island. The Visitor Center is open 9 - 4 Monday - Saturday and noon to 4 on Sundays.
Dr. Stephen Dinkelacker (pictured above) from Framingham State College in Massachusetts sent the above photo to Stewart with the following comments: "Here is the alligator from Milltail with the bite mark near the tail. The other side of the tail has the same u-shape. You can see a bright yellow plastic zip tie attached to one of his neck scutes. That makes him easily identifiable so that we don't waste time trying to catch him again this year." Photo Credit: Framingham State College.