Rockefeller State Refuge is an expansive area of the western end of Louisiana’s swampy coast which prides itself as being one of the key DNR sites to aid in the rescue of American Alligators when they were endangered several decades ago (Link to Map and Location). Today, besides maintaining a large wildlife management area full of birds, fish, herps, and sporting enthusiasts, they manage the region’s alligator population, work with commercial farmers and supply most of the alligators used in research in North America. If you didn’t already know, research in alligators is booming. There is strong interest in alligator and crocodilian genomics, hematology and disease resistance, biomechanics (for example…the death roll..), cardiopulmonary and developmental physiology, let alone our persistence in using them as a comparative anatomical model for vertebrate paleontology, functional anatomy and evolution.
Needless to say, there are few contrasts in weather than experiencing sunrise over a balmy swamp one morning, and then 24 inches of snow the next. The gators were used for research as well as a fairly popular high school workshop “Inside Alligators”we put on a week or so after we returned.
This June, I was accompanied by Ohio U/Witmer lab alum and current Mizzou Lecturer Dave Dufeau, and two undergraduates, Cortaiga Gant and Julie Tea. Cortaiga has been part of Project Gator Chin for a while whereas Julie is a Visiting Summer Fellow from University of Houston. This trip made for a good experience for them–none of whom had ever visited a place like Rockefeller and everyone got a chance to see, hold, and work with alligators. We stopped in Baton Rouge on the way down, stuffed our faces with shrimp and oysters at The Chimes and had a relatively leisurely drive down the coast the next day to get to Rockefeller. We then drove the entire way back to make sure the eggs and cadavers were taken care of.
We visited Rockefeller this trip to load up a bunch of eggs we are currently incubating in the lab. Alligator eggs typically take about 65 days to hatch and are laid in a large, mother-guarded, mounded nest in late May/Early June. The Refuge staff use helicopters and airboats to identify and flag nests every season. They also collect recently-laid eggs and keep them in large outdoor incubators. The eggs are given to researchers or are hatched and raised until they are released into the wild or used otherwise.
Rockefeller has something different going on every time I visit. I’ve seen other students there collecting blood and gut bacteria. This time they had a number of alligator gar carcasses being prepped for someone’s study. Rockefeller received some serious damage from Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005. One the “major” losses was their large outdoor, walk-in freezer, which had dozens of frozen specimens including the head of a gator that must have been pushing 10feet long…all swept away. None of this would be possible without the support and effort of Supervisor Ruth Elsey. Ruth has championed research and made the resources of the Refuge available to researchers and students from around the world. Ruth is always keen to help out people with research projects and educational materials and is always a welcoming host at Rockefeller.