Lurking in the murky shallows of kidney pond at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge are some 52 alligators. They vary in size from a mere foot or two to ten feet plus. Another shrinking waterhole on an adjacent ranch not much larger than a pickup is home to at least two dozen of the toothy reptiles.
The Rio Grande Valley's alligator population is concentrated along the coast in Cameron County, but sparse rainfall has forced the gators into crammed quarters where pockets of water remain. "We are well behind on our rainfall, and I can't think of but maybe a handful of natural wetlands or even stock tanks that have water," said Sonny Perez, Assistant Refuge Manager.
Dry conditions have the parched gators on the move in search of water, but there is not much suitable aquatic habitat available. "We have even had one of the resident gators move up into a concrete stock tank we have near the visitor center on Kiskadee Trail," Perez said. "It is about a five or six footer. We also have a smaller one living in a concrete stock tank near the barn. It used to live over near Kiskadee Trail, until the bigger one basically evicted it."
The big lake at Laguna has a thin veneer of water covering it but is not preferred gator habitat because it is too shallow. "The lake is starting to evaporate; there is not enough runoff to keep up with the evaporative loss," Perez said.
The Valley has harbored a relatively small population of alligators along the coast at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding ranch land since the 1970's. When refuge biologists began surveys of the gators in 1980, they counted 56, and none of the reptiles were more than seven feet in length.
The alligator population in the area peaked in 1995 with 110 counted, and three of them were listed as nine feet or more. In 2002, survey numbers dropped to 17, but seven of those creatures were estimated to be in excess of 10 feet. The prolonged drought form 1999 thru the fall of 2002 apparently took its toll on the South Texas alligator population. Numbers began rising again with increased rainfall, particularly in the early spring of 2004.
The customary August survey was not conducted in 2005, due to extensive tropical weather, but biologists are planning on a count later this summer. "I would venture a guess that we are up over one hundred right now and may even exceed that just based on the numbers at kidney pond," Perez said.
Alligators and their predecessors have been roaming the earth for some 200 million years, but it is a matter of conjecture as to how long they have been lurking here in South Texas.
"Whether or not the American alligator is native to South Texas is a point of considerable controversy," said Pat Burchfield, Deputy Director of the Gladys Porter Zoo. Burchfield has done extensive research on the origins of alligators in the Rio Grande Valley and referred to an historic book dating back more than a century. "The American alligator's typical habitat seems to stop at the Nueces River, and if we look in this 1898 volume of the U.S. National Museum, it says that alligators occur as far south as the Rio Grande. But they do not have any specimens from there, but they do have specimens from the Nueces River."
In addition to the refuge population, it is not too unusual to encounter an occasional alligator along the western shore of the bay, in the Arroyo Colorado or in one of the many resacas around Bayview. Since the lower Valleys system of resacas all interconnect via canals, the roaming gators also show up in Brownsville and San Benito.
There are stories of alligator encounters that date back to the early 1900's. Wayne Fuqua, retired service manager at Kellogg Chevrolet in Harlingen, remembers his father in law telling him of a big gator that was occasionally spotted in the Rio Grande around 1910. Wayne also recalls than in 1948, two small gators measuring about four feet each were killed in an irrigation ditch near Delta Lake.
Where did those alligators of yesteryear originate and are today's reptiles descendants of those early specimens? The semi arid tip of Texas is not regarded as prime alligator habitat as the area suffers extensive droughts and periodic desiccation of the Rio Grande.
It is possible that indigenous people occasionally carried little gators here as pets or table fare, and it is also conceivable during hurricane inundations that they might get washed south from the Nueces area.
I have an idea some of them might have been washed down the drains of Valley households. As a youngster, growing up in Harlingen in the late 50's and early 60's, I remember irresistible baby alligators for sale in local department stores. Some of those pets undoubtedly ended up in local waterways.
The American alligator does not reside south of the border, but Morlet's crocodiles occur eighty miles south of Brownsville; however no documentation exists of the crocs ever making their way into the Rio Grande.
The record length for an American alligator is approximately 20 feet, but the biggest member of the Crococdilian family which includes alligators is the Indopacific crocodile which can attain a length of some 23 feet and weigh more than 2,000 pounds.
While there is no record of a person in Texas ever being killed by an alligator, there are occasional fatalities in Florida where more people are crowded into traditional gator habitat. In May, three people killed by alligators in Florida in one week. Before those recent attacks, only 17 deaths had been recorded in Florida since 1948.
South Texas alligators are likely to be active this summer, as they wander in search of water, and remaining coastal ponds should be approached with caution. Several weeks ago, an unlucky motorist hit a ten foot gator on FM 2480 near Bayview and did extensive damage to their car. The driver was not injured, but the big gator had to be euthanized.
Alligators are protected in Texas, yet there is a limited hunting season on them in parts of the state where their numbers are sufficient to sustain harvest. The hunting is done by special permit and after a yearly survey to ascertain population density. Annually, approximately a thousand of the reptiles are killed for their meat and hides.
Copyright 2007 Richard Moore