Gator Country!

CSMag_AlligatorLogMar2013Some of the calls we receive at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC require attention a little beyond our realm of expertise.  Such is the case when a call comes in to relocate an alligator that has just shown up in the parking lot of a shopping mall and happens to be a 10-12 foot 400 pounder with a bite force of 1500 pounds per square inch at that!   Although we, wildlife rehabilitators, aren’t “hands on” with a gator, and they definitely won’t fit into our largest kennel cab, we know who to call.  Wildlife Control Officers directed by the North Carolina Wildlife  Resources Commission and local police departments consider an alligator out of water and wandering around in a residential area a critical danger and respond with a great sense of urgency.CSMag_IMG_1930GatorMar13 The alligator pictured, although extremely annoyed, was successfully relocated to a gator friendly area without injury to himself or the wildlife professionals involved in his capture and transport.  The question that surfaces is “Why was he out of the water, away from his habitat and among humans in the first place?”  We have lots of alligators in our fresh water streams, canals, ponds, lakes, marshes, swamps, and tidal estuaries of eastern North Carolina, and that’s usually where they stay until people start feeding them.  It’s against the law and the fine can be as high as $200, but intentional feeding still happens; bread, chips, sandwiches, chicken bones. Some feeding is unintentional, like cleaning fish and throwing the remains in the water.  Alligators are carnivorous, and they are opportunists. They eat whatever is available – fish, other alligators, turtles, waterfowl, cats, dogs, small livestock, humans. Meat’s meat and food is food as far as the gator knows.  North Carolina gators only eat during the spring, summer and early fall when temperatures are above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. They grow slower than alligators that live in warmer climates. In fact, North Carolina is the farthest north that the American Alligator can live.  Alligators are large, dangerous animals that can easily lose their fear of people, giving them the classification among biologists as “charismatic megafauna.”  North Carolina wildlife officials warn people not to feed alligators, which are common around waterways also frequented by tourists, especially in the southeastern part of our state.  Almost all human attacks come as a result of illegal feeding.  Although alligators have made a strong comeback after being hunted nearly to extinction in the 1900s, they remain listed as a threatened species.  Sometimes an alligator is confused with its closest cousin, the crocodile.  Our alligators have a short, blunt, rounded snout while crocodiles have a long, pointed snout. Cold-blooded alligators, the largest reptiles in North America, have overlapping jaws with darker coloration than the crocodile and are less tolerant of seawater, although they have been known to take a dip in the ocean.  Unlike alligators, crocodiles do not live in North Carolina.  Alligators are diurnal and nocturnal, meaning they are active both day and night. They dig large holes into the earth and make dens that provide protection and a place to rest during very hot or cold days. The “doorways” to these dens are usually accessed under water.   They are commonly seen on river banks, basking in the sun during the spring and summer.  Alligators may be spotted in the water by watching for eyes, a head or snout protruding from the water’s surface. CSMagAlligator_Mar2013  Social animals, alligators often gather with other gators during mating season. The alligator begins courtship in April and breeding goes on until May or early June. The female lays her eggs, about 30, in a nest she constructs of vegetation. The decaying organic material serves to heat the eggs. The nest is about two feet high and five feet in diameter. The white eggs, only a bit larger than chicken eggs, take about 65 days to hatch. The hatchlings are about 9 inches long and sport yellow bands around their bodies.  The young alligators leave the nest in early fall, but the mother keeps a close watch over them for up to two years. During the first six years of an alligator’s life, it will grow up to a foot each year.CSMag_BabyGatorsMar2013 Male alligators normally grow to be 11 to 12 feet long. Females grow to around 8 feet long. The longest alligator ever recorded was a male over 19 feet long! The average lifespan of the alligator is 30-50 years, with the maximum most likely occurring in captivity.  In North Carolina hunting or killing an alligator is illegal and only state wildlife officials can remove problem gators.  They can become aggressive if they feel threatened, especially when defending their nest or young and will attack humans, so do not approach them and by all means, DO NOT FEED THEM.  Alligators have been around since the dinosaur days, so they will make do in the wild without an individual yielding to the temptation to picnic with them or any other human interference!  There are no recorded human deaths in North Carolina due to alligator attack, so let’s keep it that way!

best to you always & be safe,

Linda Bergman-Althouse,   author of  “Save Them All

Turtles On The Move!

Turtles are more complicated than they look, and getting to know each species of turtle that calls North Carolina home is a challenge for staff and volunteers at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport, NC. Turtles come in different shapes (although they all resemble a circle), sizes, coloring, capabilities and live in a variety of habitats. They represent the oldest of all living reptiles, and have undergone little change since their beginnings early in the Triassic period of history. You’ll find turtles throughout North Carolina, from the Coastal Plain to our mountains in the west. Overall, twenty species of turtles, belonging to six different families inhabit North Carolina. Five of these species are sea turtles and one (the Eastern Box Turtle) is terrestrial which means lives primarily on land. The rest are semi-aquatic, inhabiting North Carolina’s ponds, wetlands, and other water bodies. We leave the rehabilitation efforts of sea turtles like Loggerheads and Kemp Ridley’s to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle and Rehab Center crew at North Topsail. They care for the guys and girls who need to eventually get back to the ocean. Our focus is land and semi-aquatic turtles; Box, Yellowbelly Sliders, River Cooters, Bog, Painted, Mud, Spotted, Musk and the Common Snapping Turtle or often referred to as an Alligator Turtle.
Turtles are admitted to the shelter for a variety of reasons. We’ve seen them injured by fishing gear, litter, lawn mowers, by a dog that held it a little too tightly in his jaws, suffering from upper respiratory infections due to environmental pollutants such as pesticides and quite often, hit by a car. The greatest threat to turtles is habitat loss, particularly destruction and degradation of aquatic habitats. The destruction of terrestrial habitat surrounding wetlands and ponds which is required for nesting, and hibernation for some species, poses significant threats, forcing turtles on the move to find new habitat.
Sadly, thousands of turtles are crushed every year by cars on North Carolina’s roads and highways, which brings us to the question of the day regarding turtles and those who care about them. How do you move a turtle out of the road? The first thing you want to do is safely position your car on the side of the road, (with your hazard lights blinking) to ensure you do not put yourself or others at risk while you rescue the turtle. It would be great if you just happened to have a pair of work or rubber gloves in the car but most people don’t. (Just wash your hands after handling the turtle because they can carry salmonella like most other animals, including pet cats and dogs.) Gently pick up a turtle and move it out of harm’s way, in the direction he or she was heading. What you shouldn’t do is pick up a turtle and move it to what you, as a human, deem to be a safe spot. They always have a good turtle reason why they are heading in the direction they are going. This time of year is turtle crossing time because mates need to be found and eggs need to be laid. If it is a sizeable turtle, especially a snapping turtle, you can use a stick, shovel or broom to push it off the road. Never put your hands or feet near a snapping turtle. A snapper has a neck the length you wouldn’t believe and will be able to reach some part of you. Their vice-grip jaws can cause serious injury. Also, never pick up a turtle by the tail. That hold could easily damage their vertebrae. BUT above all, when moving a turtle from potential disaster in the road, please be CAREFUL and DO NOT put your life at risk. Turtle moving only applies when you are driving down a road where YOU CAN stop and move about safely.
You might be wondering why they cross the road in the first place. It doesn’t seem smart when you consider turtle speed versus vehicular speed. They can’t truly make a serious run for it when they finally do see an approaching automobile. Turtles genuinely need to cross the road because, quite simply, they were here before the road was and ancestral mapping is instinctual. So, a turtle trying to cross the road is not heading in the wrong direction. Her instincts are telling her where to go. They cross the road, moving from one body of water to another to find mates, expand territory, find nesting sites, and lay eggs, sometimes pausing to bask on the warm asphalt along the way. Most turtles day-tripping out into traffic are females heading for that predetermined nesting site. Turtles mature slowly, unable to lay eggs before age ten and can live fifty or more years.
Although 2011 is touted “Year of the Rabbit” by the Chinese, conservationists internationally designated 2011 as “Year of the Turtle” due to the fact that many turtle species are now under threat from a range of man-made problems. Turtles are disappearing from our planet faster than any other group of animal, so let’s do what we can to salvage our turtle heritage, wherever we are. Our careful stewardship can help preserve them.

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save Them All”