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Scientists Strap Cameras on Alligators to Reveal Hunting Tactics

Alligator Prey

Biologist James Nifong and his colleagues strapped cameras on 15 American alligators in the ponds and swamps of coastal Florida to learn new details of alligator life.

Nifong knew what alligators along the Florida coast eat and where they spend their time, but what happens after scientists went home. The team rented National Geographic cameras developed for attachment to a living animal and designed a harness to secure the camera on the alligators.

First, the researchers had to catch the gators. The researchers caught the alligators by sinking a hook into the animals' tough skin, then secured the jaws with tape and sat on them while installing the camera. The process took only 20 minutes to minimize the stress on the animals. The gators still put up a fight.

"They generally thrash their tail around, or they try to hit you with their head. These are fairly dangerous body parts flying at you (from) a large alligator," Nifong says. So "once you get them onto the boat, you just get people on top of them," which calms them. None of the researchers got seriously injured. Nothing more than minor bruises and scrapes, he says.

"They're smarter than we think," says Nifong, a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida in Gainesville, whose mascot is, of course, the alligator. "Their lineage goes back to the time of the dinosaurs, and they've been around for a reason. People should give them a little more credit."

The scientists then retrieved the video footage recorded over the following hours to determine how frequently the animals attempted to capture prey, and how successful they were in their hunts.

Video footage revealed that the gators hunt most often at night, even though the probability of a successful catch is highest during the morning hours.

The alligators were successful at hunting prey about 50 percent of the time; of the 59 prey attacks recorded on camera, 31 resulted in capturing the prey. The researchers also observed that the animals would try to attack a prey up to four times in an hour. During a "feeding frenzy," one alligator made 18 attacks in just one hour, the researchers said.

"We discovered that alligators forage at all times of the day, but increasingly during the night and evening hours, however they were most successful in the morning and while attacking prey below the surface," said the researchers, James Nifong from the University of Florida and colleagues, in a statement.

"They're attacking something once every two hours," Nifong added.

American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) were also twice as successful in their hunting attempts when the reptiles were underwater, Nifong and colleagues report in the study, published online January 15 in the journal PLOS ONE.

That prey consisted of items like crayfish and turtles, as opposed to mammals such as raccoons, which alligators can catch when they're hunting at the surface.

This study will help wildlife biologists get an accurate survey of alligators and understand how many are loitering near humans, says alligator biologist Allan Woodward of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"Based on this study … when people say, 'We only have three alligators in this pond,' well, you're seeing three — there are probably six out there," Woodward says.

The new research is a "fantastic study" that will help researchers understand how alligators affect the ecosystem, says Hamish Campbell of Australia's University of New England.

By studying alligators, Nifong also hopes to help them. Crocodile and alligator species live in wetland, rain forest, and coastal areas—and many of them are threatened or endangered.

The American alligator was once listed as an endangered species in the U.S., but conservation measures have helped them recover.

They're currently listed as a threatened species throughout most of their range in the U.S., although in some areas they're still considered endangered.

Alligators' Hunting Secrets

Watch: Alligators' Hunting Secrets Revealed by Crittercams

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