STARKVILLE — The normally choppy waters of Bluff Lake were frozen Tuesday morning as Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge Manager Henry Sansing took a stroll along a recently completed pier and gazed through the icy patchwork of trees and downed branches. A small area in the center of the 1,200-acre lake was thawed and the nearby spillways flowed freely, but most of the surface was covered by a thin layer of ice.
Temperatures Tuesday climbed into the low 40s, which caused the ice to creak, crack and slowly melt, but the recent cold snap has wildlife officials concerned about the 70-75 adult alligators and their offspring who populate Bluff Lake and the surrounding waterways. Bluff Lake, its tributaries and Lake Loakfoma are located in the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Alligators, which are warm-weather creatures, live throughout the 48,000-acre refuge.
A “freeze-over” of Bluff Lake in 2001 resulted in the deaths of at least 15 adult alligators, said ranger Andrea Dunstan, including one named “Big Al,” who measured 12 feet, 8 inches in length. During the winter, alligators go into a sort of hibernation called “torpor,” which causes their metabolism and body temperatures to decrease, Dunstan said.
“They don”t die specifically from this,” Dunstan said of the cold weather and frozen lake surface. “It can get so cold that even their immune systems shut down and, at that point, if they have any bacteria, the bacteria keeps growing and they end up with these respiratory infections that could kill them when they come out of torpor.”
Big Al and the rest of the 2001 group died of respiratory infections, Sansing said. The alligator”s enormous skull is now displayed in the refuge visitor”s center.
Dunstan and Sansing hope the cold weather this winter won”t result in a die-off like 2001.
“We”re hoping the cold is not going to affect them, but that remains to be seen,” Sansing said. “At this point, we”re unsure. There”s a possibility some of them might get respiratory infections, but it”s too early to tell.”
The difference between the cold spell this year and the frigid temperatures in 2001 is, in 2001, the area went through a warm stretch before the cold snap hit. This winter, it has been cold long enough that Sansing believes the alligators had time to prepare their dens before the lake froze and the water temperature dropped too low.
“I think a lot of them just got caught out in the elements (in 2001),” Sansing said. “Now, some of them are going to be back in the banks, in the hollows, where it won”t freeze. Some of them will be in these dugouts in the banks and in places in the creeks and things. We”re hoping they were prepared.”
Back in 2001, dead alligators started “washing up” around March or April, Dunstan said. It probably will be late winter or early spring this year before wildlife officials can determine the effects of the recent cold weather, Sansing said. The lake was “just about” completely frozen over Monday, he said.
“They”re like people,” Sansing said of the alligators. “If they get exposed to the cold weather too long, they get sick. Some get sick and some don”t. Of course we”re hoping for the best. At this point it”s just a waiting game to see how they fair. I”d certainly like to see it warm up, not just for the alligators, but for the people, as well.”
Temperatures are expected to climb into the mid-50s today and Friday, according to the National Weather Service.
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