March 11, 2011

Crocodiles Enlisted For Everglades Preservation

Crocodiles and alligators in the Florida Everglades now have a new job: helping US scientists in their fight to preserve the fragile wetlands.

Researchers are implanting the reptiles with satellite chips in a science first that will allow scientists to follow the animals' movements through different parts of the immense national park. The chips will bounce back information on changes in the ecosystem and its impact on the size and movement patterns of the crocs and gators.

"They are giving us important data... They are working for us," said Frank Mazzotti, an ecologist and expert in the large reptiles at the University of Florida, as quoted by the AFP news agency.

The data is transmitted by satellite to a computer application using Google maps to track the movements of the reptiles.

"Scientists use different parameters to track responses of alligators and crocodiles to changes in the ecosystem, including their number, their weight, their size and their places of habitat," Mazzotti told AFP's Juan Castro Olivera.

"All this information provides important data that is instrumental in analyzing the health of the Everglades' ecosystem" and in seeing whether past conservation efforts have succeeded, he noted.

Wildlife experts estimate that there are between 500 and 1,200 crocodiles living in southern Florida. The animals, which can grow to 15 feet long and weigh up to 450 pounds, have been declining in numbers in recent years due to loss of habitat, poaching and water pollution.

Like many bird species that make their home in the Everglades, the fate of alligators and crocodiles is closely linked to water levels, which largely determine their food supply, Mazzotti expressed.

As water levels drop, it results in fewer plants that are needed for shelter and nesting. That also means fewer fish to feed on, which is a mainstay for the larger animals of the Everglades.

Jerry Lorenz, of the conservation group Audubon of Florida, estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 birds nest in the Everglades every year, a significant reduction from the 1940s, when as many as 500,000 lived there. "In more than half a century, it's been about a 90 percent decline on average," he said.

Fires, floods, hurricanes and drought have produced a distinctive ecosystem in the Everglades with a wealth of rare plants and animals, including the crocodiles, manatees, flying squirrels and gray foxes that climb trees.

Conservationists are concerned that budget cuts might complicate efforts to protect the wetlands, with a million visitors every year attracted to the subtropical wilderness.

French clothing brand Lacoste, which funds a global program to protect crocodiles called "Saving Your Logo" after its own trademark, is contributing to the efforts to protect crocodiles and alligators in the Everglades.

The company, founded by French tennis champion Rene Lacoste, is donating $150,000 over three years to help save crocodiles around the globe.

"We are very pleased to participate in this new project that clearly emphasizes the importance and the key role of crocodiles and alligators in the ecosystem," said Lacoste CEO Christophe Chenut.


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