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Alligator eggs begin to hatch in UNF climate change study

Professor, students researching how rising temperatures affect alligators' sex

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Alligators hatching on the University of North Florida campus could be crucial to learning how rising temperatures will impact alligator populations.

Dr. Adam Rosenblatt, UNF assistant professor of biology, and five biology undergraduate students are studying the alligators as they hatch to see if temperature changes affect the reptiles' sex.

There are 20 nests with 20 eggs each; the nests are wrapped in chicken wire, and half of them are also wrapped in clear plastic designed to raise the temperature by 5.5 degrees. 

In humans, whether you’re male or female is determined by your genetics. In alligators -- and many other reptile species -- whether an individual is male or female is determined by the temperature of the nest.

With climate change increasing temperatures worldwide, people are concerned about the balance between males and females in reptile species. A serious male/female imbalance in a species could lead to decreasing reproduction and eventual extinction.

A decline in alligator populations could lead to environmental damage and economic losses for Florida, according to Rosenblatt.

Dr. Rosenblatt’s research aims to understand how male/female ratios of alligator populations may change in a warming world. If alligator populations decline because of this issue, it could lead to environmental damage and significant economic losses for the state of Florida. 

In the wild, males make up only 20-30 percent of alligators, since males breed with more than one female.

Temperatures are crucial to alligators, as their sex is determined by what the temperature of the nest is during the time between 15 and 30 days after the eggs are laid. If temperatures are too cold or too hot, only females are produced.

Student Molly O’Brien, a UNF senior, has been taking the lead in this project, assisting Rosenblatt in the alligator egg research.

O'Brien was awestruck walking into the lab and seeing the eggs for the first time. 

“I was being so careful at first. I was even whispering around them until I realized that was completely unnecessary. I handled the eggs with great care, making sure to not damage any of them,” O'Brien said. “Holding the eggs was really incredible. It was like a step back in time. Knowing that alligator eggs from 80 million years ago are not much different than what I was holding in my hands that day was remarkable.”

The alligators will eventually go back to Louisiana, where Rosenblatt got the eggs.