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Use of alligator hole abundance and occupancy rate as indicators for restoration of a human-altered wetland

August 29, 2012

Use of indicator species as a measure of ecosystem conditions is an established science application in environmental management. Because of its role in shaping wetland systems, the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is one of the ecological indicators for wetland restoration in south Florida, USA. We conducted landscape-level aerial surveys of alligator holes in two different habitats in a wetland where anthropogenic modification of surface hydrology has altered the natural system. Alligator holes were scarcer in an area where modified hydrology caused draining and frequent dry-downs compared to another area that maintains a functional wetland system. Lower abundance of alligator holes indicates lack of alligator activities, lower overall species diversity, and lack of dry-season aquatic refugia for other organisms. The occupancy rate of alligator holes was lower than the current restoration target for the Everglades, and was variable by size class with large size-class alligators predominantly occupying alligator holes. This may indicate unequal size-class distribution, different habitat selection by size classes, or possibly a lack of recruitment. Our study provides pre-restoration baseline information about one indicator species for the Everglades. Success of the restoration can be assessed via effective synthesis of information derived by collective research efforts on the entire suite of selected ecological indicators.