This November, we’re celebrating Wildlife Wednesdays with unique stories of gratitude for the animal kingdom. From pollination to pest management, follow along with this month-long blog series each Wednesday to learn why we have much to thank the wild, wacky world of wildlife for. In the previous blog, we explored the unique world of North America’s only marsupial mammal, the opossum. Be sure to check it out here. While the subject of today’s blog may be an animal that often makes it into the spotlight, the American alligator deserves much more recognition for its important contributions to Florida’s freshwater ecosystems than it receives. Read on for a unique perspective on this iconic reptile.
An Unlikely Team Player
While many reptiles get a bad rap for being “cold-blooded”, just like all species of wildlife, they too are part of an interconnected web of life and play an important role on nature’s team. Have you ever visited a wetland habitat and wondered how the birds that you enjoy viewing coexist with alligators living and basking so close to them? Well, according to research findings from the University of Florida, at times, both birds and alligators benefit from this seemingly precarious positioning (James, 2016).
Raccoons are voracious predators of the eggs of many wildlife species, from sea turtles to snakes and birds. As capable and agile climbers, raccoons can access bird eggs even in the tops of trees. When wading birds like the great egret nest in areas where alligators are present, those alligators are a deterrent to raccoons, protecting the eggs of wading birds from predation (James, 2016). Acting as natural bodyguards, those alligators receive a little pay for their efforts too! Naturally, not all chicks that hatch will survive, and those that do not make it fall into the water and provide a significant source of nourishment for female alligators, just weeks before they begin to lay their own eggs (James, 2016). Read more about these fascinating findings here.
In Florida, seasonally fluctuating water levels impact organisms from all walks of life- including humans. In the Everglades, alligators play a key role in shaping or “engineering” the ecosystem by burrowing or wallowing in the mud, which creates what are called alligator holes. Alligator holes are depressions in the ground where water pools and remains, even in the dry season. They provide critical habitat and feeding grounds for wildlife such as fish, birds, amphibians, and more, when water levels elsewhere are low.
A Helpful Indicator Species
Alligators are apex predators in the ecosystems within which they live. As apex predators, they help control the populations of other wildlife, and can even consume invasive species. Because of apex predators’ important roles and impacts in their ecosystem, their presence, individual health, and population size can often be used by scientists and conservationists to study and understand the health of the ecosystems within which they live, as well as the impacts of human activity on those ecosystems.
Among the human impacts affecting the Everglades, an important habitat for the American alligator, are development, wetland drainage, and the alteration of water flow across the landscape. As scientists, conservationists, and land management organizations work together to restore the Everglades, alligators serve as a helpful indicator of the success of their efforts (Harvey et al., 2021). According to researchers at the University of Florida, alligators are an excellent measure of restoration success in the Everglades because they are sensitive to changes in the flow and behavior of water in their environment, as well as levels of salinity, water quality, and overall health and productivity of the ecosystem (Harvey et al., 2021). These are critical components of ecosystems such as the Everglades that are impacted by human activity. Science thanks you, alligators!
Showing Gratitude for a Floridian Icon
What would Florida be without the over 1 million alligators that call it home? These fascinating, powerful, and resilient reptiles captivate both visitors and residents alike, and provide vital ecosystem services for Florida’s unique and beautiful freshwater habitats.
For more information about the biology and ecology of the American alligator, as well as how to recognize normal versus aggressive alligator behavior and stay safe, check out our free, Wild Sarasota webinar all about the American alligator!
See you next week for another story of gratitude! Find more blogs in the Stories of Gratitude for the World of Wildlife series here.
Harvey, R. G., Mazzotti, F. J., & Brandt, L. A. (2021). The American Alligator: An Indicator Species for Everglades Restoration. EDIS. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/UW358
James, B. (2016, March 1). Birds and Gators Help Each Other in Florida’s Wetlands. University of Florida News. https://news.ufl.edu/articles/2016/03/birds-and-gators-help-each-other-in-floridas-wetlands.html