Alligators, people in delicate balance

The Brunswick News

Anna Ferguson Hall
December 27, 2011

Date December 27, 2011 Section(s) Local News Byline By ANNA FERGUSON HALL The Brunswick News
Just behind the marsh grasses, a misunderstood creature floats in a shallow lake on a Jekyll Island golf course.

Its large eyes peering up from the murky waters, the alligator watches idly as golfers stroll by, swinging clubs and occasionally pointing out the scaly reptile.

It's not uncommon to spot these often-feared, large-mouthed alligators on island golf courses. The green links are a favored home for the animal, said Kimberly Andrews, research coordinator for the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island, which spearheads conservation efforts at the state park.

In recent months, Andrews has taken to studying the alligator population as part of island-wide conservation planning. What she found is a critter that has won a reputation it may not deserve.

"There are misconceptions about alligators. A lot of people are scared of them, and they are very territorial animals, but they are also rather docile creatures," Andrews said.

Since 1948, when records started being kept in the United States, only 23 fatal alligator attacks have been reported nationwide. Of those, only one has occurred in Georgia and there have been only 12 overall alligator attacks in the state.

In Jekyll Island's history, there is only one account on record of a person being attacked by an alligator, which happened eight years ago at a golf course.

"A man was retrieving and cleaning (golf) balls and only required a handful of stitches," Andrews said. "Ball retrieval is actually the biggest issue with alligators, because they are so territorial."

Andrews is endeavoring to understand the behavioral tactics, overall health and population of alligators on the island.

Currently, there are about 100 alligators, with the majority being young, smaller animals, measuring about 3 feet in length. Larger, mature alligators of reproductive age are rare, with only a few found on Jekyll, she said.

Whether the population is up or down is impossible to determine, because no records have been kept, Andrews said.

"Not much has been recorded here about these animals. Right now, we see that there are few parent alligators on the island," she said. "With alligators, that can be expected, as they are top-down predators. They manage their own population through social competition. Alligators are each other's greatest predator."

Humans have had some impact on alligator behavior. Alligators should be slow to approach people, and people should act likewise.

There were observations, however, of alligators being overly docile with humans, the result of people feeding the animals. "The animals, in part, have acclimated to the presence of people, and we really don't want that," Andrews said.

Humans have had negative impacts on some island alligators. During the course of her survey, Andrews found at least one dead alligator, which was full of tennis balls it had eaten.

Overall, Andrews said, the island has a healthy population of alligators, with numbers being neither too big nor too small. However, conservationists will continue to study the creatures and manage population size as naturally and effectively as possible, she said.

Educating the public will be a likely next step in conservation efforts. It's not uncommon to see people feeding or attempting to feed alligators. That poses risks for people and disturbs the natural eating habits of the animal.

"For whatever reason, we find that most people like to feed alligators marshmallows," Andrews said. "It is actually illegal to feed alligators in Georgia."

While Andrews will continue to study and work to promote alligator education, the exact details on how to deter human-alligator interactions have not been ironed out.

"We naturally thought to increase signage and add more 'do not feed' signs, but we are mixed on that. Studies have shown that tends to create more problems," she said. "People see the signs, and say, 'I never thought to try that,' and then they try it. It can backfire.

"We need the public at large to know that these creatures should simply be left alone."