This summer, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island launched an exciting new weekly class to educate guests about one of the island’s most interesting creatures: the American alligator.
As part of island-wide alligator research efforts, which are supported by the Jekyll Island Authority, Georgia Department of Natural Resources and NOAA, Kimberly Andrews, Ph.D., University of Georgia Master’s Student Greg Skupien and researchers at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center offered a free, weekly Alligator Education Program throughout the summer. During the inaugural run of the class, educators taught guests about the habitats and lifestyles of alligators as well as introduced participants to one of Jekyll’s very own resident alligators.
The final class of the inaugural alligator sessions was held Wednesday, September 25, 2013.
“In these weekly classes, participants learned about the importance of American alligators in local ecosystems,” Skupien said. “Additionally, they learned about ongoing research efforts on Jekyll Island including the use of radio telemetry to track the movement patterns of large alligators. Further, they were educated on the actual risk of living alongside alligators and how to safely observe alligators in the wild.”
These classes were limited to 25 to 30 people per week, and were full every session. Overall, Skupien hosted 13 alligator programs, with a total of 391 participants. Because the 2013 season of classes proved so successful, the course will continue next year, starting early spring of 2014 and following the same model that was used for this initial round of classes.
“These classes were so popular because alligators are charismatic animals that are important members of both southeastern ecosystems and American culture,” Skupien said.
Along with these popular classes, efforts continue to be made to ensure the safety of both guests and the island’s alligator population. Alligator research on Jekyll has been ongoing for more than two years, having started in April 2011 by Andrews, and now continuing with Skupien. Since alligators can be very cryptic creatures, researchers have found it tricky to determine an exact population count on the island. However, they have noted a seasonal variation in alligator abundance, with the animals being more active in the warmer spring and summer months. During the cooler winter months, alligators tend to spend more time in dens underground, where they become difficult to spot.
Despite the animals’ natural ability to stay hidden, Andrews and Skupien regularly partake in intense efforts to track and observe the wild creatures. Thanks to the census surveys they conduct monthly on the island, Andrews and Skupien estimate about 125 alligators call Jekyll Island home. Of these, about 75 percent are small, immature alligators, measuring less than six feet in length.
Additionally, “we are radio tracking 10 adult alligators in order to examine alligator habitat use and movement patterns on the island,” Skupien said. “We also collect data on the size and sex of captured alligators in order to determine growth rates, sex ratios, and other pertinent information.”
These ancient wonders are a great indicator of the island’s overall ecological health, as they are sensitive to environmental factors. A healthy population of American alligators translates to a healthy island ecosystem. Additionally, alligators are a top predator on Jekyll Island, and they help maintain healthy populations of other animals. Most commonly, these reptiles will be found near lakes, especially around golf courses, but are not considered extreme threats to people.
Though Jekyll is home to a sizeable population of alligators, the animals rarely cause problems for island residents and guests. On occasion, an alligator will be seen in the road, or may enter a private backyard, but “that’s about it,” Skupien said. “Nothing serious. We respond to those calls and deal with the alligators as needed. We also use these opportunities to educate our residents and guests about how to safely live amongst these wild creatures.”
In the cooler fall and winter months on Jekyll Island, alligator populations tend to stay even more hidden than in warmer months, making them harder to spot. However, Andrews and Skupien caution visitors to be vigilant while on the island. By following a simple set of guidelines, these impressive creatures can add a bit of extra wonder, but no harm, to your overall Jekyll Island experience. Just remember: Be kind. Stay back. Follow the rules.
While exploring and enjoying Jekyll, follow these rules to maintain a safe but educational experience around alligators:
• Do not feed or attempt to feed the alligators: Alligators are protected by state and federal law and feeding them is illegal. When alligators are fed they lose their natural fear of humans.
• Be aware of your surroundings: Always be aware of alligators when you are anywhere near fresh or brackish water. Never intentionally approach or try to capture an alligator, no matter what size.
• Do not allow children to play in water inhabited by alligators: Always keep children a safe distance from the water’s edge, and never allow them to throw objects into the water. To an alligator, a splash potentially means a food source is in the water.
• Do not allow pets in or near water known to harbor alligators: Dogs and other small pets are more likely to be attacked than humans because they resemble natural prey. Please keep all dogs leashed and do not allow them to swim, drink, or play at the water’s edge.
• Play it safe when golfing: Never search for a lost golf ball in the water or on the bank. Of course, never try to hit a ball that has come to rest near an alligator.
For more information about Jekyll Island and alligator research, visit jekyllisland.com or georgiseaturtlecenter.org.