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COSAM Researcher Reunites Dozens of Baby Alligators with Mother

Published: 10/08/2019

By: Melanie Vynalek

Biology faculty in the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) conducts research making for some interesting stories.

For John Finger, he may just tell you about the time he reunited dozens of baby alligators with their mother.

Finger arrived at Auburn University in 2015 to begin a post-doctoral fellowship. Alongside his wife, Meghan Kelley, he researches alligator populations while she studies gopher tortoises.

The two met during Finger’s initial job interview at Auburn. Now, years later, they both teach courses within the Department of Biological Sciences.

About two weeks ago, the couple set out on a routine alligator survey at a site in Eufaula. They noticed an unusually large alligator stuck in a culvert, and for more than two hours, they used bamboo poles, tongs and ropes to successfully set it free.

Kelley held the alligator in position while Finger took a free end of the rope holding its jaw and tied it to a bamboo pole. This enabled them to maneuver the gator and guide it to safety.

Upon being rescued, the nine-foot long, nearly 200-pound female alligator swam towards the direction of a gator hole where Finger and Kelley discovered about 20-30 recently hatched baby alligators. Because of this behavior and the alligator’s mature appearance, they concluded she is likely the mother, Finger said.

“Alligators are one of the only reptilian species that exhibit parental care, and a mother alligator will be able to recognize her offspring’s calls and will often aggressively protect her babies from predators… without their mother, these 20-30 baby alligators would have had a significantly reduced chance of survival due to the lack of protection they would have otherwise received,” Finger said.

Finger’s appreciation for and desire to protect the natural world and its inhabitants – specifically reptiles – started at a young age.

Growing up in North Carolina, Finger often vacationed to beaches along the East Coast. Instead of looking forward to walking along the sand and jumping the waves, Finger’s favorite part of the trip was seeing the miles of swamps and wetlands on the drive there, he said.

Finger even remembers his first experience with alligators. At age nine, he visited Alligator Adventure in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. About a decade later, he accepted a job at the same reptile facility and began his real work with crocodilians.

Working with alligators and crocodiles for over 14 years now, Finger has taken his appreciation for the species to Alabama – actively researching for alligators in about eight counties thus far, including Coffee, Dale, Barbour, Covington and Houston counties, he said.

With research season being in the summer months, Finger and Kelley reserve their weekends during the fall and spring semesters for the gators. During their busy weekdays teaching, they both incorporate some sort of first-hand experience with wildlife and animals, Finger said.

“For both Meghan and I, we use this as important opportunities to instill in students an appreciation and respect for the natural world around them,” Finger said.

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