Many species including fish, snakes, turtles, insects and birds benefit when American alligators create wetland depressions that hold water during dry periods. An article describing how alligator holes help ecosystems in the Florida Everglades was published on June 4, 2012 in Ecotone by the Ecological Society of America.
The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is a large reptile that inhabits wetlands across the southern United States. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s American alligator populations plummeted due to excessive hunting and habitat loss. After protective measures were put into place, populations rebounded and the American alligator was delisted as an endangered species in 1987.
The return of the American alligator from the brink of extinction is often heralded as a conservation success story by scientists.
Adam Rosenblatt is a Ph.D. candidate at Florida International University who is studying the American alligator and their role in Florida Everglades ecosystems. He is one of this year’s three winners of the Ecological Society of America’s Graduate Student Policy Award. He described to the Ecological Society of America how American alligators can have a large impact on ecosystems in the Everglades because of their role as large predators.
American alligators can also have a large impact on ecosystems in the Everglades through their ability to function as ecosystem engineers.
Ecosystem engineers are species that modify the availability of resources to other species by causing physical changes to the environment. Some ecosystem engineers, like trees and coral reefs, accomplish this feat by simply adding their own towering structures to the environment. Other ecosystem engineers, like beavers, humans and alligators, excel at altering the environment primarily through mechanical means.
Adult alligators excavate depressions in wetlands by use of their feet, snouts and tails. The depressions they create retain water in the wetland even during dry periods. Alligators are thought to create alligator holes in order to stay cool during hot weather, to attract prey and to successfully mate and reproduce. The extra water present in alligator holes is beneficial to many other wildlife species including fish, snakes, turtles, insects and birds.
Rosenblatt is conducting his research on the American alligator through the Florida Everglades Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. He said during an interview with the Ecological Society of America that his research group is working to put together an integrated picture of studies on the Everglades so that they can promote healthy Everglades ecosystems through restoration activities.
Bottom line: An article published on June 4, 2012 in Ecotone describes how American alligators help ecosystems in the Florida Everglades by creating alligator holes that hold water during dry periods. The extra water is beneficial to many wildlife species including fish, snakes, turtles, insects and birds.
Deanna Conners is an Environmental Scientist who holds a Ph.D. in Toxicology and an M.S. in Environmental Studies. Her interest in toxicology stems from having grown up near the Love Canal Superfund Site in New York. Her current work is to provide high-quality scientific information to the public and decision-makers and to help build cross-disciplinary partnerships that help solve environmental problems. She writes about Earth science and nature conservation for EarthSky.