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Research Roundup: May 24, 2016

  • 4 min to read
Research Roundup

Presence of Nile crocodile in Florida raises ecological concerns

Florida’s subtropical climate, coupled with its proclivity for sunshine, has traditionally been an attraction for snowbirds. Now the Nile crocodile is staking its claim to call Florida home.

Researchers at UF have confirmed the presence of the Nile crocodile, Crocodylus niloticus, in southern Florida between 2000 and 2014.

During the 14-year period, two nonnative crocodile species were found to be Nile crocodiles based on DNA-sequence data, said David Blackburn, the associate curator of amphibians and reptiles at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

The news comes in the midst of an ecology that has been struggling to maintain its endemism with the presence of invasive species, like the Nile monitor and Burmese python.

“This is another really large apex predator introduced into the Florida ecosystem,” said Kenneth Krysko, the herpetology collection manager at the Florida Museum.

Nile crocodiles can survive in Florida for a number of years, said Krysko, who co-authored the study published April 30, 2016 in the Journal Herpetological Conservation and Biology, and they are now known to grow quickly in the Florida wilderness.

“We don’t see every crocodilian,” he said. “There are thousands of them out there. Who are we to say we’ve found them all?”

Between 2010 and 2014, Nile crocodiles in Africa were responsible for at least 480 attacks on people and 123 fatalities.

“In its native range in Africa, people and Nile crocodiles do come into conflict,” Blackburn said. “And (Nile) crocodiles, just like American alligators, can maim and kill humans.”

Additionally, the Nile crocodile is responsible for “significant loss of cattle and other domestic farm animals” in its range, posing a risk to the agricultural industry of Florida, according to the study published by Krysko and his team.

– Justin Ford

Citizen scientists can help protect the fox squirrel

The general public can now help scientists protect the Florida fox squirrel and other endangered species by submitting data on those species, according to a study done by UF’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Science.

Courtney Tye, a master’s student in the UF/IFAS Wildlife Ecology and Conservation department, worked with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and developed an application for the general public and professionals to submit pictures and locations of the Florida fox squirrel. Tye contributed to management plans to benefit the species and later passed away in 2014, according to Alligator archives.

Of the 10 subspecies of fox squirrel, the Sherman Fox Squirrel is the most common near Gainesville, said Wesley Boone, a doctoral student in UF’s Wildlife Ecology and Conservation department.

“Citizen scientists can tag where they saw the fox squirrel and add a photo,” he said. “Not a single person has wrongly identified a fox squirrel yet, which is amazing.”

While the use of camera traps has become one of the best methods to track the fox squirrel, citizen scientists now help researchers by reaching more broad areas of Florida, collecting more data than researchers could do alone, Boone said.

Anyone can become a citizen scientist regardless of his or her background by submitting the location and pictures of the fox squirrel species to the Fox Squirrel Registry on the FWC website.

– Guerbrea Fort

Reporting concussions can lead to faster recovery for athletes

When Jackson McCall thought he sustained a concussion, he kept quiet.

“I feel like I’ve heard guys talk about playing through this before, and I don’t want to sit out the last game,” McCall remembers telling himself.

Now a sophomore accounting major at UF, McCall, 19, was a middle linebacker and fullback for Douglas Freeman High School in Virginia at the time. With his team in the middle of a playoff run and a game against rival Atlee High School up next, he didn’t want to risk reporting something that may be a problem.

Even if the injury had happened at the beginning of the season, McCall said his thought process would’ve been the same.

However, a recent study from the UF Sports Concussion Center may change how McCall and other athletes view reporting concussions. That’s the goal, according to the paper’s lead author Breton Asken, a graduate student of UF’s Clinical and Health Psychology doctoral program.

The study compared how long it took athletes to get back on the field if they reported concussions right away as opposed to waiting until the end of the game or the next day. The results supported what intuition would suggest: Players who waited to report their symptoms took an average of about five days longer to recover than athletes who reported their symptoms right away.

Asken believes having evidence that shows early reporting leads to quicker recovery times will motivate athletes to report concussions more often.

“I think that’s a language that they understand a little bit better, and that they can relate to a little bit more,” Asken said.

McCall agrees, adding the study could also influence coaches.

He said he had never heard of those benefits in high school and teaching athletes of all ages the importance of early reporting would encourage them to get checked out after an injury.

“I think that would be big for players and coaches to understand,” McCall said.

– Ethan Bauer

Study shows highway noise interferes with bird communication

UF student researchers have discovered a correlation between highway noise and bird communications.

UF/IFAS wildlife ecology and conservation student Aaron Grade studied northern cardinals in multiple intact forests with highways alongside them. Most of the investigation occurred near Interstate 75 and U.S. Highway 441.

Grade and his research assistants, Maria Ospina and Jason Lacson, played cardinal territorial calls to attract the birds, then played tufted titmouse alarm calls to see if the cardinals responded to them.

“The main function of the alarm calls is to warn (birds) about predators,” Grade said.

The study showed two prominent results: Birds residing nearer to highways were not as responsive to alarm calls as those who lived farther away, and birds were choosing to move away from noisier areas.

Although the research did not focus on the consequences of highway noise on birds, Grade said the costs are comprehendible.

“If they can’t hear the warning calls, they could be depredated or be more scared of being eaten,” he said. “They would change their behaviors.”

Grade said he hopes for further investigations.

“I’m hoping that other people do similar studies in other areas so that we can confirm that this is happening with other species as well,” he said.

– Kathleen Hyatt

Removing beach debris helps turtles nest

A recent study conducted by UF researchers has shown removing beach debris helps sea turtles nest as the nesting season begins.

The study dealt specifically with loggerhead turtles, which are listed as a threatened species. The goal in population recovery of listed species is to increase population abundance, Margaret Lamont, a biologist in the Wetland and Aquatic Research Center, wrote in an email.

“For loggerheads, reducing mortality means reducing impacts to turtles from several activities such as commercial fishing and vessel strikes,” Lamont wrote. “Increasing the birth rate is accomplished in several different ways including protecting adults so they can reproduce, protecting nests once they’re laid on the beach, and ensuring habitat is available on which turtles can deposit their eggs.”

Lamont said the researchers hypothesized beach debris limited the space available for turtles to lay their eggs, resulting in fewer nests.

In January 2013, the researchers removed the debris and observed how many times turtles crawled on the beach without laying eggs, as well as how many nests the turtles formed before and after debris removal, she said.

“The number of nests increased 200 percent, and the number of false crawls increased 55 percent in the experimental section,” Lamont said.

– Rosanne Ramraj