ATHENS, Ga. (WSAV) – Researchers from the University of Georgia and the Okefenokee Swamp Park are working to maintain the swamp’s native alligator population.

On Aug. 27, UGA’s Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant and the park signed a commitment to continue its Alligator Education and Research Project. The effort keeps park officials updated and helps them to work on conservation and management of the swamp.

“Applied research like this project in south Georgia is helping communities throughout the state address critical, local challenges,” said Jennifer Frum, vice president for UGA Public Service and Outreach. “This is a great example of how UGA is fulfilling its mission as Georgia’s land-grant and sea-grant institution.” 

The project first began in 2017, and since then, scientists have done field research to inventory the current alligator population by sex, age and size.

PSO researcher Kimberly Andrews cradles baby alligators in the Okefenokee Swamp Park. (Submitted photo)

“The American alligator remains a conservation concern for a number of reasons, including human persecution and loss of native habitat,” said ecologist Kimberly Andrews, a faculty member with UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “It is important for us to understand how these reptiles are adapting to survive in a human-dominated environment.”

Using satellite tags and cameras, Andrews and her team at UGA have tracked seven adult alligators in the swamp, observing interactions between the sexes and age classes, courtship between males and females, maternal care and interaction with other species, such as bears or otters. 

They regularly survey areas of the swamp to get approximate counts of the alligators there and their activity levels during day and night, from season to season and under changing environmental conditions. 

So far, their research has shown that adult females and their guarded young, ages 1 to 3 years, are typically the most visible while the males are on the move and the mid-size subadults are more covert. Alligator activity and their visibility in the swamp is influenced by social structure and the presence of dominant individuals and changes in environmental conditions, such as temperature and rainfall, UGA says.

“We are excited to renew our partnership with Dr. Andrews and UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant,” said Dr. William Clark, an ophthalmologist in Waycross and chair of the OSP Board of Trustees, a nonprofit organization. “So far, the results of the alligator research have already changed the way many people view this apex predator and we look forward to increasing our collaboration for years to come.”

UGA says alligators are a conservation success story. They were the first species to be listed federally as an endangered species. Alligator farming replaced the overharvesting from the wild that caused their decline and alligator populations began to rebound. 

UGA says alligators are also vital to South Georgia’s ecosystem.

Alligators are apex predators, consuming a diversity of food sources and regulating prey populations. When alligators are lost from a system, this balance is lost and the ecosystem instability impacts many other species, including people who rely on predators to manage prey populations, such as deer, that pose risk to our safety when overabundant.

Alligators’ den sites are also critical for frogs, who use them as breeding habitats. The loss of alligators has impacted the amphibian population in some areas.

The Okefenokee is the largest blackwater swamp in North America, serving as the headwaters of the St. Marys and Suwanee rivers. Most of the swamp is located in Southeastern Georgia and is protected largely by the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and the Okefenokee Wilderness.