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Teen Gators Are Getting Into Golf

An alligator is seen near the 14th green during the first round of the Valspar Championship on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Florida
Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Before Jekyll Island, a barrier island on Georgia's coast, became a golf destination, it was a maritime forest of southern live oaks. The island was a retreat for millionaires before the state purchased it in 1947 and turned it into a state park. Two-thirds of the island remains undeveloped, home to wading shorebirds, nesting sea turtles, and congregations of alligators. The alligators enjoy the wilderness, but they also enjoy Jekyll Island's four golf courses.

The eerie green expanse of a golf course is not any creature's natural habitat, and converting land to a golf course often involves the modification or destruction of actual ecosystems. But amid encroaching human construction and activity, a golf course can be a refuge for species searching for shelter and fresh water: birds, turtles, insects, and other lake creatures. Aside from us, American alligators are perhaps one of the most visible species that can be spotted ambling on the green of a golf course. They live in the southeastern United States, a region riddled with the holes belonging to nearly 3,800 golf courses. But gators did not evolve to live on golf courses, and scientists knew little about how this swanky new habitat might affect the reptiles' lifestyle.

A paper published this week in the journal Ecology and Evolution found that juvenile golf-course gators on Jekyll Island had drastically different diets than their wilder counterparts on a nearby island with no golf courses. The researchers stalked Jekyll's golf courses at night with handheld spotlights, their eyes peeled for gators. When they spotted one, they captured the reptile with a fishing pole and modified treble hook. They taped the gator's mouth closed, filled its stomach with water using a tube, and then performed the Heimlich maneuver to essentially make the gator barf up its meals. The researchers collected their hard-won watery vomit, sieved out the prey, and identified each creature as best as possible. Finally, they compared their findings to data collected 11 years before from Sapelo Island, which has no golf courses, and a fraction of Jekyll's tourists and year-round residents.

The gators from both islands ate many of the same things: insects, arachnids, fishes, and crustaceans. But the Jekyll Island gators subsisted primarily on insects and arachnids, while the Sapelo Island gators mostly ate crustaceans. The Jekyll Island gators also had a higher percentage of fish in their diet than the other gators. Insects may seem like light fare for gators, but the small critters thrive on golf courses and are likely more abundant prey.

It's clear the golf-course gators have adapted to their artificial environment and are eating well, but the researchers questioned if this diet could harm their health in the long-term if the gators are accumulating heavy loads of pesticides. One 2017 paper found gators captured on or near South Carolina golf courses had some of the highest contaminant loads ever measured in crocodilian species. The researchers suggested that recapturing the juvenile gators over time to measure their growth, as well as sampling their blood and muscle tissues for pesticide analysis, might answer these questions.

At a glance, the American alligator represents a success story. Humans are not the only creatures whose American dream might include golf courses, and a blurry video of a big boy lumbering across a picturesque sporting green offers a reminder of how majestic the reptiles can be. Alligator populations have been rebounding since the species was nearly hunted to extinction in the middle of the 20th century. But the researchers caution that simply documenting this abundance is not enough, and call for scientists to seek a deeper understanding of the consequences species face from living in a highly controlled, quasi-natural space like a golf course. Some of the hundred-plus gators that roam Jekyll Island spend 58 percent of their time in golf-course ponds and only about 26 percent of their time in marine areas, according to the researchers who track them. Let the Jekyll Island teen gators lounge where they please, and let them grow impressively large and strike a healthy dose of fear into every golfer.

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