Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gatorzilla

Here we'll examine commonly e-mailed pictures and text about giant alligators. Similar to my giant dead rattlesnake post, I'll add to this blog as more pictures are brought to my attention. Many of these e-mails have been going around for years. Have you recently received one that's not addressed below? Please send them to me, my contact information is on the right.

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1) "This picture below was taken by a KTBS helicopter flying over Lake Wiess about 90 miles north of Birmingham, Alabama! The helicopter pilot and the game warden were in communication via radios; here is a transcript of their conversation.

'Air1 have you a visual on the gator, over'
'Approaching inlet now, over'
'Roger Air1'
'Gator sighted.... Looks like it has a small animal in its mouth...moving in, over'
'Roger Air1'
'It's a Deer!'
'confirm Air1.. did you say Deer?, Over'
'Roger.. a Deer in its mouth.. Looks like a full sized buck..
That's a big gator, were gonna need more men, Over'
'Roger Air1.. Can you give me a idea on size of animal, over'
'Its big 25 feet at least, please advise Gator is heading to inlet..
do I pursue?, over'


That has to be a HUGE gator to have a whole deer in its mouth! The deer was later found to be a mature Stag and was measured at 11 feet!
"

This story about the alligator eating the deer has been discussed on Snopes.com, the myth busting site, and also by Dr. Whit Gibbons, a UGA professor. So, we won't go into much detail here.

As Snopes notes, the location associated with the e-mail often varies but may include 1) Cross Lake or Lake Conroe in Louisiana, 2) Lake Martin, Alabama, 3) South Carolina, 4) the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Or, as the latest version notes, Lake Weiss, north of Birmingham, Alabama. In addition, Dr. Gibbons notes in his description he has seen the pictures attributed to Ocala, Florida and Lake Conroe, Texas.

The truth is that the picture was taken by a United States Fish and Wildlife officer in March of 2004 south of Savannah, Georgia.

Alligators eat lots of different types of prey. When they're small, they often eat insects and amphibians. As they grow, they start feeding on larger fish and turtles. When they get larger they'll start preying on medium-sized mammals (like raccoons) and the biggest individuals can take large items, sometimes including deer. What's interesting about alligators is that even when they're as large as they come, they still eat a wide variety of other animals, including the ones they ate when they were small.

American Alligators, Alligator mississippiensis, do not reach 25 feet. The record, according to my reptiles and amphibians field guide, is under 20 feet long. But, an alligator this large would be exceptionally rare and old. And lucky enough to have escaped the rampant overexploitation that characterized their harvest for the skin trade in the first half of the 20th century. Before they were afforded federal protection in 1967, it looked like the alligator was on its way out, but since that time they've bounced back reasonably well. In some areas now, they alligator is thriving and protections have been rolled back. It's an Endangered Species Act success story.

Another red flag is the stated length of the deer, 11 feet long! Hopefully some hunters can weigh in below regarding their reaction if they were to ever bag a deer this large.

Large alligators today are typically 12-16 feet long and the alligator above falls within this range.

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2) "This alligator was found between Centre and Leesburg, Alabama near a house! Game wardens were forced to shoot the alligator, guess he wouldn't cooperate...

Anita and Charlie Rogers could hear the bellowing in the night. Their neighbors had been telling them that they had seen a mammoth alligator in the waterway that runs behind their house, but they dismissed the stories as exaggerations.

'I didn't believe it,' Charles Rogers said, but they realized the stories were, if anything, understated. Alabama Parks and Wildlife game wardens had to shoot the beast. Joe Goff, 6'5' tall, a game warden, walks past the 28-foot, 1-inch alligator 8.5 metres he shot and killed in their back yard."


This tale has also been torn to shreds on Snopes.com, so why spend much time on it here? The alligator looks a lot larger than 20 feet though and the text (completely bogus) doesn't help. Why does it look so large? Readers familiar with my take on "giant" rattlesnake pictures know all too well. By placing the alligator closer to the camera than anything else that might serve as a reference, it appears larger than life.

As Snopes notes, it's a 13 foot alligator from Texas. Not a 25 footer from Leesburg, Alabama, or Orlando, Florida. Both locations are commonly attributed to this picture.

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3) On several occasions, I've received e-mails about this giant "alligator" crossing the road with a hog in its mouth. One version states that the beast is from Mims, Florida. What's the biggest clue the story is fake? This is actually a crocodile. There are several ways to tell a crocodile apart from an alligator; although the traditional techniques are difficult to apply in this case, the color patterning is distinctive enough to allow a reliable identification. There are American Crocodiles, Crocodylus acutus, in Florida but this doesn't look like one; it appears as though its a Nile Crocodile from Africa or Saltwater Crocodile from Australia or Southeastern Asia.

1/4/10 Update: This picture is now circulating with the text, "HOG HUNTING PHOTO 
NEXT TO I-10 JUST NORTH OF  HENDERSON , LOUISIANA The trick is teaching your retriever to let go of the Hog once he has caught it!!"  There aren't any crocodiles in Louisiana, let alone Nile or Saltwater Crocodiles (the subject of the photo).  So, rest assured one of these guys won't be crawling into your parish anytime soon.



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4) "Be glad this isn't your job. Florida Power & Light working at Orlando International Airport. After seeing this I would definitely want hazardous duty pay!...The gator is/was 18' 2" long."

Snopes has already addressed this one as well. Although the gator looks large, we're all too familiar with the camera tricks.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Come to the Light

In many circles, the knock on men is they aren't romantic enough. Sure, they may come up with a good idea here and there, but it’s just not their specialty. But sometimes we’ve just got to hand it to some dudes.

A couple months ago, one man took his girlfriend on a vacation to the South Carolina coast. With his creative juices flowing, he had placed about 150 luminarias (small, shaded candles) along the beach in the shape of a heart. Then, at night, with the sound of the waves lapping against the sandy shore and with the stars shining from the dark sky above, he asked for his girlfriend’s hand in marriage. After an enthusiastic acceptance, the couple ran back to their rental home; I assume they were in a rush to get a head start on reserving a caterer and deciding on table assignments for the reception.

In their excitement though, they left the candles on the beach, burning through the night. What the couple surely didn’t appreciate was how their actions may affect local wildlife. You see, there was romance in the air for sea turtles as well. After mating, from May through August, female Loggerhead Sea Turtles will crawl onto beaches along the southeastern United States and laboriously lay about 100 eggs into nests they dig with their back flippers. Hatchling sea turtles, miniature versions of the massive adults, will emerge from the nest at night a couple months later. As soon as they break the surface of the sand, they are especially vulnerable to predation by raccoons and ghost crabs, so they attempt to make for the sea as quickly as possible.


It’s thought these little sea turtles may find the ocean by heading towards the moonlight reflected on the water. So, the lights associated with most coastal communities are confusing and hazardous. Street lights, for example, may disorient them, causing them to travel in directions far from the safety of the water. The little reptiles become easy prey or simply wander until they eventually perish. It’s a sad fate for these animals, rare and of conservation concern wherever they can be found.

Many coastal cities have strict lighting ordinances; homes and businesses along the beach typically comply out of respect for the turtles or for fear of fines associated with ignoring the rules. Encouragingly, there is usually broad support for these ordinances, especially since compromises exist, like low wattage bulbs placed in strategic locations away from the beach. Within the community, most everyone knows about their sea turtles but unfortunately tourists are sometimes left in the dark.

The morning after the romantic proposal, a sea turtle volunteer assigned with monitoring local nesting activity was dismayed to find the tracks of sixty baby sea turtles scattered across the beach. The many candles had terribly disoriented them and none were thought to have survived.


The newly engaged couple learned a horrible lesson the next day as they were confronted by angry sea turtle volunteers, saddened by the loss of the nestlings. These volunteers invest so much in the safety of the imperiled reptiles, year after year. They protect the nests from predators and monitor the population to know if their numbers are on the rise. They conduct education efforts to teach others about the importance of conservation and how seemingly harmless actions may influence our natural surroundings. Their efforts are so valuable to sea turtle conservation. But sometimes people fall through the cracks. And when they do they present an opportunity to learn how future education efforts can become even more effective.

Pictures appear here courtesy of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Gimme Shelter...

Today I received an e-mail from Georgia about dead rattlesnakes; the e-mail indicated it may have originated from the state. The text reads,

"My buddy and I went to the farm today for a little deer hunting, which was a washout. Since we had some time to kill we decided to check out the farmhouse, barns and finally... the storm shelter. No one had been down there in about 15 years so I figured it was due for an inspection. I was standing at the truck moving some gear and hear the door creak open followed swiftly by my buddy yell, " **** RATTLESNAKE. " I turn in time to see him in mid leap flying away from the open hole. Well, we screw up the courage to look in the hole and see over a dozen LARGE rattlesnakes all over the stairs. A raging bout of our 18 year old bullet proof selves kicked in so we gathered up a t-post, a pitch fork and an axe handle then proceeded into the darkness. A few short, bloody, adrenaline filled minutes later we resurfaced with a pile of snakes and a cleaned out storm shelter."


First off, we can emphatically state that this picture was not taken in the southeastern United States, because these are Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes, Crotalus atrox, not the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes, Crotalus adamanteus, that occur in this portion of the country. Although they are closely related, Westerns aren't found east of Texas and Arkansas. The patterning on Easterns is typically black squares bordered by gold, but one of the easiest ways to tell them apart is by looking at the tail. Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes have a characteristic black and white striped tail. These two species are often mistaken for each other.


Another reason we know this picture is not from the southeastern United States is that Eastern Diamondbacks aren't typically found together in these numbers. Unlike Western Diamondbacks (or Timber/Canebrake Rattlesnakes, Crotalus horridus), Easterns don't den communally. They will spend their winters in stumpholes or gopher tortoise burrows (among other refuge types), by themselves.

In previous posts, I've discussed how rattlesnake stories circulated by e-mail are often exaggerated. But this one seems legitimate. As I mentioned, Western Diamondbacks will often spend winter together in subterranean refuges, a storm shelter might be a suitable place to find shelter. One potential inconsistency is that the text indicates there were "about a dozen" rattlesnakes, and the pictures show ten. But I'd say ten is close enough to roughly 12. Another concern may be that the picture has been modified to make the snakes appear larger than they really were. Well, it's hard to know what kind of truck is shown in the picture above, but most tailgates are considerably smaller than six feet in width. A couple of the snakes look to be about as long as the tailgate is wide and most are smaller. All are within the known length range of the species.



12/11/09 Edit. I believe I have tracked down the original source of the pics and story to an individual in Texas that shared them on a bow hunting forum. Others must have taken that information and started forwarding it via e-mail, without mention of the original location. In this forum, the individual later notes there was also a rat snake and coachwhip present. They let these non-venomous snakes go unharmed.

I believe the story to be true; another unfortunate but understandable reaction to potentially harmful reptiles in or around human habitation. Tips on keeping rattlesnakes away from your home can be found here