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Estimating trends in alligator populations from nightlight survey data

January 1, 2011

Nightlight surveys are commonly used to evaluate status and trends of crocodilian populations, but imperfect detection caused by survey- and location-specific factors makes it difficult to draw population inferences accurately from uncorrected data. We used a two-stage hierarchical model comprising population abundance and detection probability to examine recent abundance trends of American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) in subareas of Everglades wetlands in Florida using nightlight survey data. During 2001–2008, there were declining trends in abundance of small and/or medium sized animals in a majority of subareas, whereas abundance of large sized animals had either demonstrated an increased or unclear trend. For small and large sized class animals, estimated detection probability declined as water depth increased. Detection probability of small animals was much lower than for larger size classes. The declining trend of smaller alligators may reflect a natural population response to the fluctuating environment of Everglades wetlands under modified hydrology. It may have negative implications for the future of alligator populations in this region, particularly if habitat conditions do not favor recruitment of offspring in the near term. Our study provides a foundation to improve inferences made from nightlight surveys of other crocodilian populations.