Monday, December 11, 2017

Gator eggs used to study genetics, toxicity, health

DELEON SPRINGS — A pair of biologists nervously kept an eye on an 8-foot alligator just a few feet away as they pilfered eggs from her nest along the edge of Spring Garden Lake near DeLeon Springs. "Welcome to fieldwork," joked an internationally known researcher as a group of about 15 biologists fanned out across Spring Garden Lake and nearby waterways in the Lake Woodruff system searching for alligator eggs. The eggs — contributed by sometimes less-than-willing alligators — will be studied worldwide for information on genetics, environmental contaminants and human health.

Louis Guillette, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and director of marine biomedicine and environmental sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina, has researched alligators in the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge and Lake Apopka for 25 years.

When he started, they were doing mostly "simple biology." Today, tissue and genetic samples from the eggs are analyzed and compared using the latest techniques in genetic research and molecular biology. Guillette said samples from the eggs collected last week are headed to laboratories in Japan and France and will be studied by at least eight Ph.D. students and several post-doctoral fellows.

"If we are going to do this work we have to learn everything we can," said Guillette. They look at basic biology, but also eco-technology, trying to understand environmental contaminants and how those contaminants might lead to birth defects in alligators, and humans.

But first the biologists and researchers have to get the eggs. And that's no easy feat.

The work is at once hot and messy, thrilling and beautiful.

Nests aren't always easy to find amidst a sea of rose mallow and spartina growing along the water. When a nest is spotted, either from an airboat or a helicopter overhead, the biologists push through reeds and bushes higher than their heads and slog through slick mud under a blistering sun.

Female alligators sometimes crawl long distances to build the mounds that will insulate their eggs for 60 to 65 days. They use their mouths, tails and legs to thrash down the surrounding plants and pile up the nests.

One of the collection teams working on Spring Garden Lake last week included Arnold Brunell, an alligator biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Ben Parrott, a post-doctoral research associate working with Guillette.

By noon, Parrott's forearms were criss-crossed with cuts from razor sharp saw grass. In addition to their encounter with the alligator, the team also had close encounters with a ruby-throated hummingbird feeding on the pink mallow blooms and a horde of large grasshoppers, commonly known as lubbers.

When researchers find a nest, they measure it and record the air temperature. Then they collect some of the decaying plant material piled in the nest and place it in bins to cushion the eggs.

The eggs they collected took a long trip back to Guillette's South Carolina laboratory later that day.

The eggs — usually around 35 — are counted and added to an observation form completed for each nest. Each egg is marked with a graphite pencil to record its upright position.

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