The alligators of the Everglades are wasting away. Literally.
Scientists have noticed for decades that gators in South Florida have become increasingly smaller than those found in central and north Florida, and things haven't gotten better. CBS News reports that the habitat now supports about half the population scientists expect such an environment could support.
"They're skinnier, they're fewer, they grow slower," University of Florida ecologist Frank Mazzotti tells CBS News. "Most other places, if an alligator is 10 years old it's easily 6 feet long--not so in the Everglades. At 10 years [old], it's only 4 or 5 feet."
"Essentially it looks like a skeleton with skin hanging on it," Mazzotti says of many of the gators he comes across.
Meanwhile, gators in areas like Lake Okeechobee continue to thrive and reach full size.
However, the weight disparity is nothing new. Scientist first started taking notice in the '90s. A 1999 Sun-Sentinel story notes that 9-foot alligators tagged south of Tamiami Trail weighed as little as 100 pounds, while other 9-footers near Lake Apopka in Central Florida weighed all the way from 225 to 300 pounds.
Brady Burr, a former University of Miami herpetologist and now host of a Nat Geo Wild show, studied eating habits of gators in Shark Valley in the late '90s and early '00s and found that many of them lived off of a diet heavy on salamanders, aquatic snakes, and snails. Gators further north have a more varied diet that included bobcats and deer. Alligators in the Everglades, he believed, used to previously rely more on wading aquatic birds for food, but as there numbers thinned out so did the gators' bellies.
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Though, various scientists have also thrown out theories about warmer temperatures, deeper waters, and different metabolisms from time to time.
Shannon Estenoz, the Department of the Interior's Director of Everglades Restoration Initiatives, now believes, somewhat obviously, that the gators' declining health all goes back to the draining of the Everglades in the '50s to make room for development in South Florida. This has lead to great pollution in the Everglades and has also driven away some of the gators' prey.
"All of the flood protection and drainage infrastructure that was constructed within the last century to dry up land for that development has not only deprived the Everglades of actual habitat, but it's also redirected water from flowing through the Everglades out to the coast in unnatural patterns and with unnatural levels of pollution... mostly in the form of nutrients like fertilizer," Estenoz tells CBS.