Wednesday, 3 May 2017

35-year South Carolina alligator study uncovers mysteries about growth and reproduction

May 3, 2017 by Jonathan Veit

Research by wildlife biologists from Clemson University and the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center near Georgetown is shattering conventional scientific understanding about American alligator growth and reproduction.

For years, it was believed that American alligators continued growing in length until they died, what is called "indeterminate growth." But a 35-year study of a protected alligator population at the Yawkey Center on the South Carolina coast has found that male and female alligators exhibit "determinate growth." In other words, they stop growing at some point after they reach sexual maturity.

Additionally, females are reproductive far longer than previously thought, 46 years past the onset of sexual maturity in one case, the study found.

The study was performed by retired Yawkey Center manager and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Phil Wilkinson, Clemson University Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and Forest Science wildlife biologist Thomas Rainwater and three colleagues with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The team published its findings in Copeia, the journal of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.

Wilkinson, whom Rainwater calls, "one of the grandfathers of South Carolina alligator research," began examining the Yawkey alligators with names like Truck Biter, Big Bertha, Cudjo, Grover and Bette Davis Eyes in 1979 as part of a population and nesting ecology study, making the Yawkey alligator study the longest known continuous alligator study in the world.

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