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In the Florida Everglades, alligators are in trouble. The reptiles are scrawny, weighing 80 percent of what they should. They grow slower, reproduce less and die younger. Amy Green of member station WMFE reports that researchers are trying to understand why this species is in decline and what it means for the Everglades.
AMY GREEN, BYLINE: Laura Brandt's head swivels, the flashlight on her forehead slicing through the night's blackness. Two alligator eyes appear red and gleaming like lonely Christmas lights on a watery prairie. Brandt steers the airboat toward the gator.
She slows the boat, and Frank Mazzotti reaches over its side, fastening a wired noose around the alligator's neck. The animal flails among the sawgrass of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife refuge in South Florida.
Brandt watches over Mazzotti's shoulder as the alligator struggles, ready to secure the animal's snout with electrical tape. The alligator spins in its death roll.
LAURA BRANDT: That's their natural instinct of both trying to get away, fighting, and, when they catch prey, that's one of the things that they do.
GREEN: Brandt and Mazzotti are part of a 15-member team of state and federal researchers. For more than a decade, they have ventured into the wilderness of the Everglades to catch and study alligators like this one.
BRANDT: We've seen some alligators in some years that have been basically skin and bones, and when we get concerned is when we see multiple alligators like that.
GREEN: Their research is part of the world's largest environmental restoration, a $17 billion effort that spans a region twice the size of New Jersey. They're monitoring alligators to see whether the restoration is working. Alligators are an indicator species of the Everglades, a watershed supporting dozens of federally threatened and endangered animals and the drinking water for more than a third of Floridians. The reptiles are responsive to environmental changes and influential as top predators and ecosystem engineers. They are easy for decision-makers and the public to understand and identify with. Researchers like Mazzotti say as the Everglades' 30-year restoration reaches its midpoint, the watershed still needs help.
FRANK MAZZOTTI: The Everglades' food machine is broken.
GREEN: Human interference with the so-called River of Grass's historic flow of water has disrupted the animal's food supply. Mazzotti says draining the Everglades upset the hydrology alligators depend on and that's why the restoration aims to resurrect a more natural flow. The watershed once spanned nearly all of South Florida. Today it's half of its former self, sustained by a complex, human-made system of canals, dams, water control points and pump stations.
MAZZOTTI: We've screwed up that pattern that produced and concentrated food, meaning alligators are getting skinnier.
GREEN: Mazzotti and Brandt hoist the alligator into the air boat. The alligator is six feet long. Mazzotti inspects the animal's tail. This female actually is in good condition, unlike the many scrawny alligators the researchers have seen.
MAZZOTTI: There would be no fat. This would be all sunken in and you'd be able to see the tail bone with, like, just the skin hanging on it and sunken in on the sides.
GREEN: The alligator weighs 50 pounds. It groans. Finally the researchers free the animal.
BRANDT: And she's ready to go.
GREEN: Together the researchers catch and release about 200 alligators a year, each one a reptilian measuring stick of the Florida Everglades restoration. For NPR News, I'm Amy Green.
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