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Get Ready to See More Alligators North of Florida

Climate change is pushing gators to new habitats, but a spate of recent spottings in Georgia may have a simpler cause: there's more and more of us around them.

by Matt Smith
Jun 3 2016, 7:05pm

Imagen por Rhona Wise/EPA

Flat Creek Floyd is laying low.

The alligator that was first reported swimming around under a bridge in the Atlanta suburb of Peachtree City, Georgia, hasn't surfaced in a while. Police there have urged people to leave him alone—and quit trying to take selfies with him.

"We're not going to chase him down the creek somewhere," said Jason Clark, of Southeastern Reptile Rescue, who's helping the city track the gator. "But if he decides to come back and hang near the bridge, and the city wants him gone, then at that point we'll try again to go out and start trapping him."

Floyd is one of at least three alligators that have been spotted around Atlanta since March. He's at least six or seven feet (two meters) long, "if not maybe bigger," Clark said.

In early May, state wildlife officials captured one in the Chattahoochee River that was almost seven feet long, and released it back down south. A third has been spotted paddling around a pond in Lilburn, about 20 miles (30 km) from downtown.

It's unusual—but wildlife experts say gators may be a more common sight in the years to come as the reptiles rebound from near-extinction, people move further out into the surrounding countryside, and climate change shifts their current range northward.

Alligators are typically more of a problem for Gulf Coast and Florida, where homeowners routinely run into the reptiles. But an estimated 200,000 live in Georgia, sometimes ranging far inland from the state's relatively short strip of Atlantic coastline. They also pop up in central Alabama, sometimes as far upstream as Montgomery.

They were once hunted to near-extinction across the Southeast. But since being placed on the endangered species list in the early 1970s, they quickly rebounded. They typically stay well south of Atlanta, preferring the coastal plain to the Appalachian foothills in the north of the state.

Popping up in the city isn't normal, "but gators show up in weird places all the time," said Yale University ecologist Adam Rosenblatt, who studied alligators in Florida. And so far, there's no sign of any of them taking up permanent residence among the condo towers or leafy suburbs.

"Finding three small alligators in one location doesn't really mean they're expanding their range, even if they did move there of their own accord," Rosenblatt said. "If people start finding alligator nests in and around Atlanta, that would be a much more significant thing."

The gators found around Atlanta are typically younger males, pushed out of their habitat by older males as they grow up and become competition for food and mates, Clark said. But not always: the specimen captured in the Chattahoochee was a female, according to state wildlife officials.

Clark said he gets several calls a year to wrangle gators in the Atlanta area, where the notorious suburban sprawl raises the odds of running into one.

"You've got alligator populations growing, people population growing, and you're bound to have more people seeing more alligators," Clark said.

"I've had homeowners get upset and say, 'This does not make sense. We're not in Florida,' " he added. "I'm surprised at how many people born and raised in Georgia don't know alligators are native to Georgia. They think you're not supposed to see gators until we get to Florida, but we're just a little north of natural alligator habitat."

Alligators currently live as far north as North Carolina. They're not likely to survive winters beyond that, Rosenblatt said. As with many species, their range is expected to shift further north as climate change warms the Northern Hemisphere—but there's no indication that's happening yet, he said.

"Right now I think it's merely a coincidence. If you see this pattern over multiple years — if there are still three next year, or if there are six next year or 10 next year — then that would be more of an interesting trend. But it's hard to say anything from one year, because it could just be a fluke."

Clark said there are likely more alligators swimming around in the numerous streams and small rivers that surround the metro area. He suspects there's one bigger than Floyd still lurking in Flat Creek—one that got away from him a few years ago.

"I think they've been doing this for a very long time. Now I just think there are more people there to spot them."

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