A research crew from the University of Florida, led by a wildlife ecologist who has studied alligators for decades, has discovered that the alligators living in the Everglades are getting more and more emaciated.
"They're skinnier, they're fewer, they grow slower," U of F ecologist Frank Mazzotti told CBS News. "Most other places, if an alligator is 10 years old, it's easily six feet long -- not so in the Everglades. At 10 years [old], it's only four or five feet."
When observing the gators, Mazzotti notes, "Essentially it looks like a skeleton with skin hanging on it."
So what the hell is happening to the alligators?
Not surprisingly, it turns out that people may be the reason the gators are getting skinnier every year. Scientists believe that building and expanding a city on top of a swamp might be contributing to the animals' poor health. A massive draining project built back in the 1950s in order to develop metropolitan South Florida has drained huge swaths of the Everglades into the ocean.
As a result, pollutants and fertilizers have streamed through the swampland and shrunken the habitat. Moreover, the drainage might also be limiting the gators' diet, since the farther north you go, the fatter the gators get.
Pumps that were constructed on the Everglades to drain them also polluted the habitat. Now, according to Mazzotti, only 50 percent of the original Everglades remains. And what remains is damaged.
So, even with billions being poured into restoring the Everglades, the consequences of infrastructure might be slowly killing the alligators.
Back in 2013, the Central Everglades Planning Project called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan "the most expensive and comprehensive environmental repair attempt in history."
"No one set out in the beginning of the 20th Century to destroy a world-class ecosystem," Shannon Estenoz, director of Everglades Restoration Initiatives, told CBS News. "There was just a lack of appreciation and understanding of the damage that was being done.
"Cities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach and other cities could not have grown in the way that they grew without this drainage project," Estenoz added. "It's the unintended consequences that it took us a few decades to figure out."
Meanwhile, Mazzotti says the gator population in the Everglades is less than half of what you'd expect in a thriving habitat.
"The best of them are skinny," he says in the report. "They weigh maybe 80 percent of what an alligator should weigh. But what is of much greater concern to us is the proportion of alligators that are emaciated."
"When they're not doing well, something is going wrong in the ecosystem," Estonez says. "They are the canary in the coal mine."
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