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Alligators Starve In Florida Everglades, Indicating Ecosystem is In Poor Health

Feb 22, 2016 02:32 PM EST
Researchers have noticed alligators are growing much smaller and reproducing less in the Florida Everglades. (Photo : Flickr: Eric Kilby)

Alligators in Florida's Everglades National Park are in trouble: They are remarkably thin, weighing 80 percent of what they should, and they are growing much more slowly. What's worse is they are reproducing less and dying at a younger age, which raises concern among wildlife conservationists. 

"We've seen some alligators in some years that have been basically skin and bones," Laura Brandt, a wildlife biologist at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in south Florida, said in a statement. "And when we get concerned is when we see multiple alligators like that."

Alligators are an indicator species of the Everglades, meaning their health is reflective of the health of the watershed's ecosystem. It is believed that human activity is largely to blame for altering the area's water flow, and subsequently the animals' food supply. 

"The Everglades food machine is broken," Frank Mazzotti, a professor of wildlife ecology at University of Florida, added. "We've screwed up that pattern that produced and concentrated food, meaning alligators are getting skinnier."

Today, the Everglades watershed is about half of its original size. For more than a decade, Brandt, Mazzotti and colleagues have been studying alligators living in the area, as part of the world's largest environmental restoration project. The idea is that if the restoration were working, the alligators would be thriving, rather than starving and withering away.

As the Everglades' 30-year restoration reaches its midpoint, researchers warn the watershed is in desperate need of help. The hope, they say, is to restore a more natural flow to watershed and revive the habitat dozens of federally threatened and endangered animals depend on, not to mention the 33 percent of Floridians that rely on the watershed for drinking water. 

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