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Home / US / Frozen Alligators: These "frozen" alligators in Swamp Park are not dead. They're still sneaking people out.

Frozen Alligators: These "frozen" alligators in Swamp Park are not dead. They're still sneaking people out.



The first time he saw her on an icy morning last January, George Howard thought the strangely shaped bumps sticking out of his icy swamp were stumps.

But somehow that did not seem right. He tensed his eyes. There were tree stumps with teeth?

Howard panicked. After all, he is the manager of The Swamp Park, an alligator reserve in Ocean Isle Beach, NC. What seemed to be the frozen death of its alligators would be a tragedy both philosophically and financially.

He hopped the fence and climbed onto the pond, running towards the exposed alligator snouts. But what could he do? The alligators were trapped in the ice and motionless.

"I was like, holy crap, should I try to get her out there?" Howard told the Washington Post.

But before he embarked on a spontaneous ice excavation, he decided that some scientific research was fine, or at least a few quick googles. Relief flooded him as the search results were loaded: his alligators lived. They survived in icy water by sticking their noses through the ice. Howard's concern was replaced by another feeling: astonishment.

"It was the craziest thing I've ever seen," he told the Post this week. "I was just surprised. At first I was [worried] and then I realized what they were doing and that it was the only way they could breathe. And I thought, how intelligent is that?

Howard considered it a unique alligator experience. Last week, a cold sniffed the air in much of North Carolina and the northeast, freezing the water in Howard's 65-acre park near the Shallotte River.

No googling was required this time. Instead, Howard has posted photos directly on Facebook. The customers were enthusiastic. News agencies published stories with the word "freaky" in their headlines. The alligators remained unimpressed.

Each of the 18 alligators living in Swamp Park – all rescued after captivity – seemed to know the cold weather practice, Howard said. When it gets cold, the alligators plunge most of their bodies into the shallow water and stick their noses in the air in anticipation of freezing, creating a small hole to breathe. When the water freezes, the ice sticks to the snouts and locks the gator cicles while their bodies dangle below the surface.

Howard does not know where the behavior is coming from. In fact, nobody really does.

Adam E. Rosenblatt, biology professor at the University of North Florida, who studies how alligators respond to environmental change, said this was the big mystery. The behavior, he said, is probably not something that the alligators have learned through practice, but is instinctive, something that has evolved through natural selection over time.

"If the alligator species has lived long enough in cold temperatures, then those who were able to do so could survive and reproduce," he said. "How did you know how to do it? I do not think anybody knows the answer at this time. "

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, scientists began to investigate the behavior in detail. Since most alligators live in warm, southern climates – North Carolina is about as far north as they go – it is unusual for them to experience longer freezing temperatures. No one but the alligators seemed too curious to make it through the rare ice nights.

Then in 1983, the alligator ecologists noticed a whole gathering of alligators stretched their noses through the ice in North Carolina. They had heard herpetological legends from expelled alligators who somehow managed to survive six even winters in Pennsylvania or four years in Virginia.

But they knew that the ice technique could not be new behavior. The ancestors of the alligators developed 245 million years ago. Surely they did not just choose a Keystone State snapshot to introduce a new survival method. It turned out that the scientists just did not pay close enough attention.

Now they know what's going on in the ice: when the alligators go down, Rosenblatt said, they step into what's called "brumation" – like hibernation, but for cold-blooded animals – and their bodies are almost completely closed. All you have to do is breathe.

"They have essentially stopped their metabolism. You do not need to eat because they do not consume much energy, "Rosenblatt said. "They slow down their heartbeat, their digestive system and just sit there waiting in cold weather. It's a pretty amazing adaptation. "

It does not always work. One of the first studies of alligator glaciation in 1982 investigated an alligator who died. After three days, body temperature was too low for survival.

In 1990, scientists observed a group of alligators in South Carolina, including babies, and found that the baby alligators did not know the technique. They saw them bang their noses against the ice before they drowned.

Three larger alligators that were late survived 12 hours under the ice, before finally gasping for air and joining the others.

Once, after the ice melted, they just retreated to the shore and looked back in the sun like a nap.


An alligator with its nostrils brims in front of a frozen pond in Swamp Park, Ocean Isle, North Carolina, USA.

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