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HERPS OF THE SOUTHEAST VIRTUAL WALK
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Stop #8: Okefenokee Swamp, GA
Featured Herp: American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)

lily pads and cypress
Okefenokee Swamp
swimming alligator
American Alligator

The East Aiken hikers reached the Okefenokee Swamp in southeastern Georgia on October 25, 1999. As the earth literally started to move under their feet, they realized the origin of the Indian name for the swamp—"Land of trembling earth" or "land that trembles when you walk on it." The Okefenokee is the largest swamp in North America at approximately 700 square miles (181,000 hectares). Over the years the integrity of the swamp has been threatened by numerous enterprises such as logging, roads, and canals, but in1937 the Okefenokee received greater protection when it was made a National Wildlife Refuge by executive order of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Visit the refuge at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge home page). More than 60 years of protection has allowed the Okefenokee to remain a wildlife paradise; the swamp is "home" to more than 60 species of reptiles and 36 species of amphibians. The most recent concerns about the future health of the swamp center on the possible mining of titanium near the eastern boundary of the Okefenokee. (See Savannah Now article and a more recent update.)

See additional information on the Okefenokee and visitation ideas, and general Okefenokee info from National Wildlife Federation.

 
 

American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)

closeup of baby on background of adult scales
Baby alligator on mother's back
hatchlings and eggshells atop mound of dead plant matter
Newly hatched alligators emerging from the nest
 
southeastern distribution

The fact sheet and species account (PDF files) below will give you lots of information concerning the ecology of alligators. For a slightly different spin on what it is actually like to do research on alligators, however, read the following account of an alligator adventure by Whit Gibbons, herpetologist at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. But remember, don't try this at home! We are, after all, highly trained herpetological professionals...

>Download the Alligator Fact Sheet (PDF)

Download the Alligator Brochure (six pages, two PDF files):
>Part A (pp. 1-3)
>Part B (pp. 4-6)

>Download the Alligator Species Account (PDF)

 
 
 
 
 

An excerpt from Their Blood Runs Cold

by J. Whitfield Gibbons
(Published by University of Alabama Press, © 1982)

From CHAPTER 4 - The Crocodilians: How to Catch an Alligator in One Uneasy Lesson

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"You know," I said with seeming casualness, "we could run across an alligator at Steed Pond."

"Oh yeah," said Morton, suspicion creeping into his voice. Apparently his first day as my technician at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory was turning out differently than he had expected. Most technicians wear white lab coats, sit on tall stools, and write on clipboards. Here he sat bouncing down a dirt road in an old pickup truck, wearing a pair of muddy hip boots, and carrying a plastic sack full of fish heads. The fish were to be used to rebait turtle traps as part of my research program.

"What then?" he asked, almost antagonistically. I looked at him disapprovingly. He began to shrug his shoulders and rephrase. "Well, I mean, what are we going to do if we find one?"

I answered with a touch of incredulity. "We're going to catch and measure it. Research, you know. Besides," I added, "it would be the first one I've ever seen in the wild."

"Oh," said Morton. He turned to stare out the window. Morton obviously did not wish to pursue a discussion on the justification for catching and measuring an alligator, even if it were your first one.

I stopped the Dodge pickup at a pullover about fifty yards from Steed Pond. We left our shirts in the truck and carried the fish heads with us down the brier-lined path. When we stood above the muddy bank that sloped steeply down to the water, I surveyed the lake.

"Hey, I thought a trap was set right along here," I motioned downward with a hand wave. "In fact, I remember holding on to this stump to get out of the water. It looks like something pulled the trap away from shore, out toward the middle."

"Yeah," said Morton, with a concerned glance toward me.

"I’ll go get it. You check and rebait the one over there near the shore." I held on to the stump and slid down the muddy slope.

The water in Steed Pond is relatively clear and less than knee deep for the most part. But the loose silt bottom is generally at least a foot thick and walking in the pond is like wading in a huge bowl of oatmeal with a topping of milk.

As I slogged through the muck toward the displaced trap, Morton moved along shore toward the other One. My feet kicked up brown, swirling clouds in the clear water as they moved beneath the layer of silt. Steed Pond contains no logs or other debris so I was not really concerned about stumbling.

I turned to watch Morton as I walked along. He lifted the net trap out of the water and I saw two large turtles. I yelled to ask what kind they were. His answer was obliterated by my second yell as I fell over a large log that I knew should not be there.

"It's an alligator!" I remarked at the top of my lungs. And, in a wide-awake nightmare, I could not pick up my feet to run. When I jerked upward with one foot the other one went deep into the mud. I prepared myself, as best one can, to be devoured, forgetting for the moment that I could leave in the same fashion as I had gotten there.

But, upon reconsideration, I did not need to leave, for the big animal was apparently afraid of me. A strange courage came over me as the alligator began to swim slowly away. Suddenly, I wanted it to stay. Like most herpetologists I had always wanted to catch the king of American reptiles. At last I was face to face with my first one, and I did not want it to escape.

"Hey, Morton, he's moved away but he's just burying under the silt layer where he thinks I can't see him. Let's catch him. Run back and get that bunch of nylon rope in the back of the truck. We can lasso him."

Morton left the sack of fish heads on the bank and disappeared into the brush. I turned to watch the big layer of silt that thought it was invisible, as it lay completely motionless on the bottom. Morton returned, breathless. He began wadding the tangled rope into a ball to throw.

"Hey," I said, "don't throw it. Just wade out here and give it to me. Besides, you do want to see him, don't you?"

"Yeah,"' grumbled Morton. He reluctantly entered the water and from a few feet away pitched me the raveled pink rope. After finding one end, I made an extra big noose and prepared for the test. Approaching within inches of the big animal's tail, I sighted the large snout several feet away. With a lump in my throat I tossed the loop end, leaving the remainder of the rope draped over my arms and shoulders.

The top of the nylon lasso splashed into the water just in front of the animal's snout; the loop sank slowly, tilted at an angle, encircling the front half of the alligator. Then the alligator began to move. The huge tail stirred up a cloud of mud in front of me. Steed Pond's leviathan began to swim away. And, by good fortune it moved snout first, right through the center of the lasso.

Most people plan no course of action for an event they never expect to happen. So I am probably with the majority who have really given only passing thought, at best, to what they would do upon finding themselves standing knee deep in a muddy lake tangled up in a piece of pink nylon rope with a full-grown American alligator attached to the other end. All I knew for sure was that whatever happened we must not lose the gator. Thinking back, I apparently also had been holding certain reservations about being towed around Steed Pond by an alligator, because with uncanny speed and agility I slipped free of the snarl of rope and threw the whole mess to Morton, who was watching entranced from the edge of the water.

"Run," I yelled at his back. "Tie the rope around that stump before he gets away." I could just as well have been talking to the gator, for Morton was obviously the one getting away at this point, and without undue ceremony. The bulk of the rope had gone over Morton's head, settled on his shoulders, and segments were trailing along behind him as he left the water at full gallop.

But the slippery bank was not to be scaled so easily, especially when Morton stepped on the plastic bag full of fish heads. He thrashed and floundered on the muddy bank like a catfish out of water. Mud, pink nylon rope, and fish heads were flying everywhere. Meanwhile the alligator had picked up speed and was heading away from shore.

"Get the rope around that stump," I shouted. "He's going out to the middle." The slack between the alligator's neck and Morton's was rapidly being taken up as the monster moved away.

Morton was only mildly frantic amid the snarl of rope as he lunged for the stump at the top of the slope. He caught it and dragged himself up the muddy bank. Then, as the slack was running out, Morton looped part of the rope twice around the stump and began to unravel himself from the remainder. The section of rope between stump and gator went taut.

I've seen many a big fish jump impressively after being hooked. But an adult alligator reaching the end of its rope is a fantastic spectacle! That dark-green monster's snout came at least five feet out of the lake while its tail churned the shallow water into a froth. When the animal landed, muddy water splashed all over me, which brought me to the sobering realization that I was standing in the water beside a not-so-calm alligator.

"Sorry," I said to Morton, two seconds later as I clambered over his body at the water's edge and pushed myself up to the stump. "Didn't mean to pull you in, but I couldn't get a handhold. Here." I graciously extended my hand down to him.

We dripped in silence on the bank as our catch swam in an arc at the end of the rope.

"That was easy enough," I said. Morton gave me a strange look. "Now all we have to do is haul him in and take him back to the lab." Morton made a peculiar sound in his throat.

I began pulling the animal in a foot at a time and looping the slack over the stump.

"Hey, man, look at that mouth," said Morton, as we finally got our catch to the water's edge. "And his tail. Isn't an alligator's tail pretty dangerous, too?"

"Only if you get in the way," I said, trying to look smug and sound clever. "I wonder what we should do now."

After answering Morton's suggestion by reminding him we had already eaten lunch, I motioned for him to help me. We began to tug on the rope, gradually moving the gator's head out of the water and up the muddy slope. When we had pulled the animal so that the forelegs were beginning to clear the water I made a loop in the free end of the rope and slipped it over the broad snout.

The alligator had been placid since reaching shore and remained so as I tightened the snout noose. I held on to the stump, leaned down, and took several half-hitches around the snout with the rope. The potentially dangerous jaws were now harmless. I chose this moment as a proper point to play teacher with Morton.

"That stuff you've heard about alligators having weak jaws when it comes to opening them is true," I said, with the bored air that implies long experience. "In fact, you see how his mouth is a little bit open right now, 'cause the ropes are too loose? I'll hold his jaws shut with one hand while you tighten the loops."

I knelt down to the now helpless creature and reached for the trussed-up snout. The jaws were parted about one inch. I put my right thumb on the gator's nose and my fingers under its chin. I was exceedingly glad to find I had told Morton the truth. The animal was obviously powerless, at least in regard to opening its jaws. I actually held them shut with one hand.

Morton, seeing the ease with which I held the mouth shut, leaned down to help. He began to pull the loops tighter around the big jaws. The alligator, half out of the water, lay quietly and watched, probably in amazement, as two mortals continued to truss up its snout. Before Morton could finish the job, however, we learned the second part of the jaw-holding lesson that nobody ever tells you.

The lesson: if you ever hold an alligator's mouth shut with one hand, something a child could do, you had better make sure that the rest of the animal is in a vise. Because there is a point at which an alligator becomes unhappy about someone holding its mouth shut and it begins to twist. Fast. And it rolls over and over. And the person holding the jaws shut also rolls over and over. As does anyone in. the process of tightening pink nylon rope around the snout. And when all this happens on a slippery mud bank beside a lake, the outcome is inevitable.

"Get out of the way of his tail," I yelled when I surfaced. I repeated the suggestion when Morton finally came up, practically beneath me. The monster was spinning around and around on the mud, its tail slapping the water right in front of us as we stood waist deep in the hole. It seemed somewhat angry about the whole situation. Indifference would hardly describe Morton's and my emotions, either.

We both lunged for the nearest shoreline vegetation to pull ourselves out of the lake. Using vegetation to pull oneself out of the water is not unusual, although ordinarily we would not choose blackberry bushes with briers. By the time we had reached the top of the bank and extracted the thorns from our hands, arms, and faces, the alligator had stopped turning over. It was now two feet farther up the slope due to the twisting of the rope between its neck and the stump. The animal lay on its belly peering up at us, waiting for our next move. We peered down, waiting for its.

"All right now," I said at last, "let's get that loop back around his snout and get him out." Morton rolled his eyes skyward.

We repeated the snout noose process but this time we decided the loops were tight enough even though the alligator could open its mouth an inch or so.

"What do we do now?" asked Morton, cocking his head down and sort of looking up at me. He obviously would be pleased to learn we were now going to release our prey by cutting the rope.

"What do you mean?" I asked. "We're going to put him in the truck. Let's just lift the rope off the stump and pick him up."

Interestingly enough, as formidable as an alligator is at either end, the limbs are essentially harmless. The relatively small legs are fleshy and limp and the claws are practically useless. The legs do make good handles, though, when carrying a sizable gator. We each picked up a front leg, put one arm under the chest, and let the tail drag along, several feet behind. We actually went the 150 feet to the truck without incident.

When we reached the pickup, Morton let the tailgate down and we pushed the animal in head first. In went the snout and the front legs. Then we each reached for a back leg as a handhold to shove the rest of the creature in. As I remember it, the realization that Morton and I were prime targets for the long tail struck me about the same time that that monstrous tail did. Two swishes sent Morton hurtling backward into the blackberry bushes (with briers) on one side of the road and me into those on the other. Our captive did not move from the truck bed while Morton and I compared bruised rib cages and picked thorns out of each other's backs.

We brought up the tailgate, enclosing the alligator in the back of the truck. "Okay," I said, "we've got to fix it some way so that he can't get out while we drive to the lab. It seems to me that the only way we can really be sure he stays back here is to put the rope through the cab with both ends tied around his neck. That way he can't climb out over the side."

Morton gave me another strange look, sideways this time, and asked, "How are we going to get in the truck? The doors will be tied shut."

"The windows," I said. "We can climb through the windows." I gingerly removed the snarl of rope by cutting it up near the snout. I left the noose around the alligator's neck and threw the rope in one window and out the other. I tied the other end around the gator's neck after removing the slack. Because the doors were now held shut, we crawled through our respective windows. Ready at last to bring the vanquished foe home, we started down the bumpy dirt road toward the highway leading to the lab.

We both had to lean forward because the rope passing through the cab was touching the backs of our necks. When Morton muttered something about the tangle of rope, I thought about the small knot in the rope behind my right ear. What bothered me, as we were streaking down the highway, was that the knot had been behind my left ear when we started. The knot suddenly slid over another foot or so into the middle of the cab.

Startled by the sudden rope burn on the back of his neck, Morton jerked forward too quickly and bumped his forehead on the metal dashboard. Without a break in rhythm, he rebounded to the back window and peered out.

"Oh my God," he shrieked, eyes wider than ever. "He's got the rope off his nose and he's moving toward your window!"

I had never found myself driving a pickup with the doors tied shut and a full-grown alligator coming in the window, so I hesitated momentarily about what to do. One inclination was to stop, bail out the other window, and run for my life. This notion was strongly and loudly supported by Morton. But I would not be robbed of victory so close to the laboratory. I rammed the gas pedal to the floor.

Minutes later I skidded the gray Dodge pickup truck into the laboratory parking lot, stopped abruptly, and, mud-covered and wet, Morton and I emerged together through one window while the large alligator entered through the other. Both nooses were still intact around its neck, but its jaws seemed to be working quite well. Once outside, Morton and I stared at the spectacle of the head partially inside the cab, the large body curving around on the outside, and the tail resting in the truck bed.

"Boy, is he mad," I said.

"Yeah," said Morton.

As we stood there, word of the captive spread through the laboratory. This animal was the first sizable alligator to be brought in and soon more than a dozen secretaries, technicians, and graduate students stood watching. Morton and I tried to look casual as we answered the salvo of questions about the capture.

Finally, I said, "Well, let's get him measured and tagged. We need to take him back to the lake this afternoon. I guess the first thing to do is get his jaws tied shut again."

In the next few minutes we safely managed to tie up the alligator and measure its eight-foot, four-inch body from snout to tip of tail. We then carried it into the lab building to be tagged for future identification. The scene reminded me of a primitive tribe as we moved across the lawn. Morton and I held the front legs, two graduate students the back. The other males in the group formed a small duster around the captive while the secretaries and female technicians followed a few feet behind in a compact, chattering huddle. The image was completed by two graduate students who had picked up pieces of aluminum conduit from the truck bed and were carrying them over their shoulders, like spears. The procession moved into the building.

Ten minutes later we emerged. Without mishap, a metal identification tag normally used for large mammals had been placed through one of the finlike scales along the top of the tail. The alligator now could be referred to as Number 38-1.

As we carried the animal back to the truck, someone suggested we untie it and put it on the ground "to see what he will do." We put it down on the lawn and I removed the pink rope from the snout and limbs. Its first response was to open its mouth slightly and hiss, loudly. The gator lay there with its mouth open, looking rather angry and not particularly vanquished. The situation seemed perfect for finding out if alligator jaws are as powerful as generally believed.

A graduate student, in the true spirit of exploring the unknown, began to poke old 38-1 on the top of the snout with a piece of hollow aluminum conduit. Comment ran through the crowd that maybe we should "let him bite the conduit to see if he'll scratch, or even dent it." The student moved the pipe end down alongside the animal's mouth with the intent of further teasing before letting it bite.

No chance! The alligator's head snapped to the side, grabbed the pipe, and whipped back to the other side so fast that the student could not even release his grip before he was pulled into the arena himself. And then, with a screaming graduate student across its back and surrounded by an audience aghast, the alligator swung its head sharply back and released the pipe. The whirring of the pipe passing overhead and the crash as it went through a window added to the air-raid atmosphere. This whiplash was followed by 38-1's demonstration of how fast big alligators can run on land. About all I can say, biologically, is that they do not move faster than secretaries, technicians, graduate students, or research ecologists.

Morton and I ended up in the ladies' rest room, where the pipe had gone, so we looked to see if the alligator had scarred it. My respect for the species grew when I saw the two holes, almost a foot apart, which went through one side and came out the other.

"Got quite a bite," I noted.

"Yeah," said Morton.

After regrouping and assessing the situation, we recaptured our captive before it scored another victory. Properly tied up, the alligator was escorted back to Steed Pond by me, Morton, and two graduate students. We carried the animal to the water's edge, put its snout in the water, and undid the knots.

I jerked the rope off and jumped back along the shore. The gator looked around and for an instant I thought it might decide it had a little unfinished business on shore, But my intuition was right. Having touched the water, 38-1 knew it was home. And with a most graceful movement the animal entered with hardly a splash. A swish of the huge tail sped it faster than a fish toward the center of the lake. A ways out from shore the gator stopped and turned sideways, watching us. Then its head turned quickly away and went underwater. Our last sight of the big beast was the huge wave created by its tail in this final submergence, a disdainful parting comment to the insignificant beings who clearly belonged to a race of evolutionary afterthoughts.

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