On a wet and windy winter’s day, creatures hide beneath the still Idabel swamps. Tim Patton’s goal is to find out as much as possible about her.
Fueled for the weekend with five breakfast burritos, he’s ready to camp at Red Slough Wildlife Management’s retreat for a few days to get an up-close look at the native alligator population.
Patton is a professor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant and one of three researchers working on an alligator research project in the southeastern state.
The project is funded by the Oklahoma Wildlife Department.
On a November morning, Patton ventures into the murky waters to check his traps. Only a few harmless turtles took the bait this time.
“If we caught as many alligators as we did turtles, this task would be a lot easier,” notes Patton.
The traps are one of the methods that Tim and his research partners use to catch alligators.
The most effective method is a more aggressive one: a search by boat after dark, where they catch alligators with a pole.
Patton says the key is looking for red beady eyes peeking over the water.
“When your eyes shine, they just sit there,” he says. “The biggest we’ve caught so far is about 9 feet tall.”
Once caught, the alligators’ mouths are taped shut and marked. Some of the alligators will receive a plastic tag and chip. Some receive radio transmitters to be tracked. The little ones get a small notch on their tails so researchers can look back inside and see how the alligators have grown over time.
“Keep catching and tagging and catching and tagging,” says Patton.
Researchers will spend two years studying alligators, ranging from babies to adult alligators measuring up to 16 feet.
“We want to know how many, what’s the sex ratio, how many males, how many females, the size structure, how many small and large,” explains Patton.
Researcher Jared Wood has placed wildlife cameras throughout the refuge. Wood is an associate professor of biology at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas.
“I have a few thousand videos, and some of them are pretty remarkable,” notes Wood.
The videos he recorded show several supporting actors, such as a family of otters trying to infiltrate an alligator cave. In one shot, you can see a rabbit narrowly avoiding becoming dinner for a hungry mother alligator.
“Everything you get on this video, on this camera, is like Christmas,” says Wood.
For Jake Pruett, an assistant professor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, studying nature is a dream come true.
“The weirdest animal out here is me,” says Pruett.
As alligators swim through Oklahoma waters, the scientists continue their search. always full of surprises.