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Saving Gator Babies

Eggs laid in a dry lake bed had to be gently relocated before habitat restoration could begin.

By Mary O. Parker

When the rain clouds once again passed up the protected wetlands of Brazos Bend State Park in spring 2006, TPWD naturalist David Heinicke suspected that the American alligators living in the park were going to have a difficult breeding season. He was concerned that an ongoing drought would interfere with the alligators’ reproductive cycles.

His concern proved valid: While breeding season arrived in April as usual, it did not arrive with the same gusto. “Because of the drought, we didn’t see as much activity as we do in some years,” Heinicke says.

For American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis), as much yearly breeding activity as possible is always desired. The alligators have rebounded well since they were placed on the endangered species list in 1967, but not without an ongoing struggle. Today American alligators are still included on the U.S. Department of Interior’s list of threatened species.

By the time many of the females laid their eggs, two key lakes at the state park, Elm and 40-Acre, had dried up to critical points. In response, park officials decided that water would need to be pumped back into the lakes from a lesser-used source.

There was one problem. The drought had allowed mother alligators to create four nests in areas of the lakes where there was historically water, and pumping water back in would threaten the eggs in these nests. It was decided that before setting to work restoring the aquatic habitat that nature was destroying, park staff would set to work rescuing as many eggs from the nests as possible.

Early on the morning of July 24, a small group set out on their very special egg hunt. Spotters with long wooden poles kept vigilant lookout for mother alligators while the group collected the eggs. The eggs were put under incubation and the first ones began hatching a mere 18 days later.

“It was an incredible experience,” says park volunteer James Blankenship, who assisted with the hatching. “I was helping to open the eggs so that the babies could get out, then when they were ready, they just shot out like little rockets. I don’t know how else to say it, but being a part of this experience was awesome.”

Of the 97 American alligator eggs rescued, 47 of them hatched. The babies that survived and thrived were tagged and most were returned to the wild within a couple of weeks. Reintroduction was done by adding them in groups of five or six to already existing nests. Heinicke explained that this is common practice and that foster alligator mothers very rarely raise objections.

“Before releasing the babies,” says Heinicke, “we made sure they were eating well and had a belly full of food.”

For more information about conservation efforts at Brazos Bend, call (979) 553-5124 or visit <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/brazosbend>.

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