By DINA ARÉVALO
Port Isabel-South Padre Press
For over two decades, the Winter Outdoor Wildlife Expo has been a festival aimed at allowing locals and tourists alike to become more educated about the unique ecosystems that exist in the Rio Grande Valley, including the hundreds of species of plants and animals that call this place home.
Since the Expo first found its new home at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center a couple of years back, it’s become bigger and better, with a wider variety of presentations and family-friendly activities. Now, the Expo extends to five full days of activities, whereas, in its earliest days, it encompassed only a weekend’s worth of events.
This year’s lineup has been no less impressive, and things got off to a great start with the very first presentation Tuesday morning. Boyd Blihovde, manager of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, spoke about the refuge’s local population of alligators.
Blihovde explained that, though they’re not a native species to the Rio Grande Valley, alligators have come to thrive in the various watering holes located on refuge lands.
It’s definitely worth the trip out there where it’s not hard to find some of the spots the reptiles are known to hang out. Even I’ve made the hike to the wooden boardwalk out by the lagoon which is the refuge’s namesake where a mama gator had been sighted caring for a gaggle of gator babies. The last time I visited, though, the small pond had dried up and the reptiles were nowhere to be found.
Blihovde mentioned this in his presentation. Reaching into an ice chest that sat on the floor beside him, the refuge manager lifted up a juvenile alligator and held it up for the audience to see. The young alligator’s mouth was taped shut to keep it from snapping its powerful jaws, and its head seemed incongruously large compared to its thin body and long legs.
It turns out my observation of the alligator’s proportions weren’t a figment of my imagination. Blihovde had rescued the small animal from the refuge. When he found it, it was suffering from severe dehydration.
The poor creature had become emaciated in its ever-shrinking watery environment and the increasingly limited food supply found there, Blihovde explained. As a result, it was undersize for its age and had noticeable signs of having lost some weight.
Though alligators have existed on this earth for millennia, successfully adapting to the ebbs and flows of the planet’s changing climate and reigning species on a macro level, it turns out that individual populations of gators aren’t always immune to the changes of their surrounding environments on a micro level.
In this case, the refuge’s gator populations are suffering the deleterious effects of a year-long drought, combined with the abnormally cold winter. The resultant limited resources have led to undersized alligators, Blihovde explained.
But, as work responsibilities loomed, I soon had to cut short my time at WOWE. Boyd Blihovde’s alligator presentation was the only one I got to see, but even in that short amount of time I was able to learn so much. And that’s something I’ve found to be true at WOWE every year — there’s always something new to learn.
There’s still more WOWE to see this weekend. So head on out to the Birding and Nature Center Friday and Saturday and see what new things you can learn, too!
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