Though dangerous, local alligators critical to environment

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In the Lowcountry, just about every swamp, marsh and pond is home to the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). They are fantastic creatures that have been around since the days of the dinosaurs.

Are they dangerous? Well, any wild animal can be dangerous. However, a 200- to 500-pound carnivorous reptile that can attack prey at ambush and can run at short bursts as fast as 30 mph is formidable.

While alligators can be a potential danger to humans, attacks are very rare. When they occur, it is almost always due to one of three things:

Provocation. Few people will go out of their way to poke an alligator with a stick, but if you have a compelling need to retrieve your golf ball using your club to poke around the grass where an alligator might be, the gator could perceive it is a threat and will react accordingly.

Mistaken identification for prey. Small children and pets near the water's edge can attract an alligator's attention. Recently, there was a tragic incident on Hilton Head Island where a woman lost her life trying to protect her small dog from an alligator.

However, perhaps the biggest danger we face from alligators is habituation, or lack of a fear of humans. By offering an alligator food, it loses its fear of humans, and poses a very dangerous combination.

Not only can the danger be immediate, but once they associate humans as a food source, then any unsuspecting person passing by can be in danger. And, that means it is highly likely that that alligator will have to be destroyed. Remember this: Feed an alligator; kill an alligator.

Of course, some people ask "Who cares?" Perhaps many of us view alligators as ugly and potentially dangerous, so one less alligator is not a big deal.

But whatever you think about their appearance, they are what is known as a "keystone species." A keystone species plays a role in ensuring a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem, which is important for all species - including humans.

One significant contribution alligators make is the construction of "alligator holes." They dig out depressions, using their snout and tail, that hold water, providing a refuge during dry periods. The holes provide a vital source of water for fish, insects, crustaceans, snakes, turtles, birds and other animals.

(Snakes! Yes, we need them too. They keep the rat population down, among other things.)

The next time you see an alligator, give it plenty of safe distance, of about 60 feet, and thank him or her for contributing to the uniqueness of the Lowcountry.

John Riolo lives in Moss Creek and is past president of the Nature Club of Moss Creek.

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