For Immediate Release
December 14, 2001
Contacts: Ellen Ternes, 301-405-4621 or firstname.lastname@example.org
'Gators in Terrapin Land
COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Before the University of Maryland Terrapin football team takes on the Gators of Florida in the Orange Bowl, they might want to get a few tips from Maryland doctoral student (2009: Assistant Professor) Daphne Soares (right) on handling gators.
She hatches them, pets them, studies them, and her idea for a research project came when she was sitting on the back of a bull alligator in a pick-up truck cruising through a swamp. Yes, the big guy was tied down.
"I was looking at his jaw as we rode along and thought 'I wonder what those little spots are for?'" Soares says, referring to the hundreds of pinprick-sized dots that line the jaws of alligators and their relatives, crocodiles and caiman. "I'd never read anything about them."
The question would lead Soares to the research that became part of her doctoral thesis and the subject of a paper she hopes to have published soon in a major scientific journal.
Soares is a biologist with an interest in neuroethology. "That's the study of the neurological basis of behavior," Soares says. "What's in the brain that makes the animal do what it's doing?"
The animal Soares chose was the alligator, and the part of the brain she's studying is the area that controls hearing. Alligators and their crocodile cousins hear differently from humans and mammals, but much like birds. "Crocodilians are the closest living relative of birds," Soares says. "Their ears and the way they process sound are virtually identical."
The Care And Feeding of Gators
Working with alligators, however, is not like working with birds. The 29-year-old Soares was raised on a horse farm in Brazil and has been around animals all her life. She worked as a veterinary technician when she was an undergraduate at Maryland, but the care and feeding of alligators is a skill of its own.
The 30 or so young gators swimming in tanks the size of small hot tubs in Soares's labs range from about two months to two years in age. The oldest gators measure about two feet, but even they are still young for alligators. They are slim, and their black and tan skin, while hard, is still forming the bone armor that covers the adult gator.
Soares talks to them as if they were something a little more cuddly, puppies for instance. "Are you miserable?" she gently asks a two-month-old gator as she strokes its belly, knowing it doesn't like to be held for long. She carefully pulls back the tiny flap of skin that covers the alligator's ear, just behind its eye.
"I fell in love immediately," she recalls about the young caiman she purchased to begin her research in 1998. "Alligators are very vocal. They growl, grunt, call out in distress. They use sound to communicate threats, mating, dominance call. The babies call out to the mother to help them out of the nest after they hatch."
The sweet talk doesn't distract Soares from handling the gator carefully. "You can't grab the tail because they'll turn and bite. You have to hold them behind the head."
Soares has been bitten dozens of time, especially by the new hatchlings. "They come out of the egg biting," she says. "The bites of the bigger ones can get infected really easily." By the time the gators are two years old, they are becoming aggressive and chomp with ferocity. "Alligators are made for closing their jaws. An adult can close its mouth with thousands pounds of pressure per square inch."
Soares's first caimans were the last gators she paid for. "They were so expensive, I decided I had to find a way to get them myself. That's when I found the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana." Located in Grand Chenier, Louisiana, along the Gulf coast, Soares describes the refuge as "the only place in the world where there are big adult alligator road kill."
It's where Soares now gets all the specimens for her lab.
With other scientists from the refuge, Soares heads out on an airboat to look for alligator nests where eggs will be hidden under a mound of grass. To harvest the eggs, Soares wades up to the nest with a bucket, while another scientists keeps any nearby mother gators at bay with a long stick.
"We can keep them away by tapping them on the nose most of the time, but there was one mother that bit the stick and broke it," Soares recalls. "I was a little nervous."
Because the eggs have to be kept perfectly still to hatch, Soares flies home with the eggs on her lap. She hasn't sent any eggs through the airport x-ray machine since September 11, so she's not sure what delays she might encounter. "I've been pulled aside before," she says. "You can see the little skeletons in the eggs on the x-rays."
In her research, Soares has learned some interesting new things about how an animal that's been around for 200 million years tunes in to its surroundings. They are big, bad and sensitive. "Nature has created an animal with a great deal of body armor in the alligator, yet it's very sensitive to changes in its surroundings," Soares says. "They are very ancient and even more amazing."
Daphne Soares is available for interviews, including video and still photography in her lab. She can be contacted at 301-405-8413; email@example.com. Footage of some of her experiments can be viewed at Prof. Soares' Faculty Web Page.
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