Sink your teeth into this, granny: Alligators along the South Carolina coast are laying fertile clutches of eggs up to age 70 — almost half a century past sexual maturity.
That finding in a new study by Clemson University and others at the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center near Georgetown, S.C., shatters long-accepted dogma on the reproduction and growth of the American alligator.
“Either the dogma is wrong, or middle age is somewhere in the 60s or 70s,” said Clemson biologist Thomas Rainwater.
Scientists also were surprised to find that alligators stop growing at some point, when it was assumed they continued to grow in length until they die.
The study is unique in that it covered a protected population for almost 35 years, in an undisturbed 24,000-acre preserve where the gators have not been hunted in a century.
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, according to a Clemson news release. The team published its findings in Copeia, the journal of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.
“It began 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,” the news release said.
Wilkinson, considered one of the grandfathers of South Carolina alligator research, said in the release: “We’re seeing old animals putting out the same number of viable eggs as they did 35 years ago. I like to think of them as being like a big old oak tree — they drop acorns every so often when the weather’s right, and then one day they don’t, and that’s the end of it.”
He also found their communication to be mysterious. Wilkinson says in the release:
“Sometimes there can be a drawdown in an impoundment, which congregates fish in great numbers. When there is that type of food abundance, you can see 100 gators there eating. Where did they all come from? How do they know where to go? One time we were flying in a helicopter over a marsh when that was going on, and they were coming to that impoundment from every direction. It’s like they were communicating in some way.”