By now, you’ve undoubtedly seen the photos of the alligators sticking their snouts out of the frozen Red Slough Wildlife Management Area in McCurtain County in the far corner of southeastern Oklahoma.
The alligators in ice photos posted on Facebook by Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation employee David Arbour went viral. Many people learned for the first time that Oklahoma even has alligators, even though the first alligator nest was discovered at the Red Slough back in 2005.
As the Red Slough wetlands froze last week, the alligators lifted their snouts out of an air hole in a technique biologists called icing or snorkeling to help the animals breath.
Rarely do alligators encounter such cold temperatures, but when it happens, the cold-blooded creatures go into the hibernation-like behavior, slowing their heart rate, breathing and metabolism until it gets warmer.
“The gators won’t freeze if the water stays liquid,” Arbour commented on his Facebook post. “They just maintain an air hole so they can breathe. Their snouts are just cartilage so freezing doesn’t hurt their snouts. They don’t hibernate but go into a sluggish state called brumation. They can still move and are aware of things.”
Alligators are native to Oklahoma with records showing they were in the southeast corner of the state as far back as the 1800s. Alligators can be found in the Red and Little River systems in southeast Oklahoma, which is the northwestern edge of the their home range.
On the Red Slough, around 100 alligators live on reclaimed rice farms that are part of 2,400 acres of wetlands on the 5,814-acre wildlife management area. State wildlife officials expect the alligators to live but are keeping a close watch on them.
Bucks and bobwhites
Like the alligators, the vast majority of Oklahoma’s wildlife are expected to be just fine after last week’s record cold and snow, but there were some casualties.
The black bears in southeastern Oklahoma were likely riding out the Arctic blast in caves. And, out west, biologists say wild turkeys should be OK, but quail might be a different story.
“There will certainly be a few (quail) that have either been killed by this extreme weather or have become food for other critters,” said Tell Judkins, ODWC’s upland game bird biologist.
It would have been worse if it had been ice and not snow that covered the ground, he said.
“Snow is not nearly as big of an issue,” Judkins said. “With snow, especially this blowing and drifting type, we end up with areas that quail can get out of the wind and still find seed resources. A covey of birds almost forms an igloo under the snow where they survive better in numbers. I am optimistic. Areas where birds have been, where there is habitat for them, they should not have been impacted too severely by this weather.”
Oklahoma’s deer herd also will weather the storm with only the most vulnerable (injured, sick and old) at risk, said Micah Holmes, assistant chief of information and education for the Wildlife Department.
“They should have a pretty high fat reserve at this time of year,” he said. “Even though it’s been super cold the past couple of weeks, generally the winter has been pretty mild with tons of acorns on the ground, so they should have gone into this (winter storm) in real good shape. Deer also eat a lot of browse, so as long as they can get to limbs, get to tree buds, they will have had stuff to eat.”
Birds struggle the most
Birds suffered the most of Oklahoma’s wildlife. While some species are heartier than others, birds such as Eastern phoebes, who are wintering in Oklahoma, along with bluebirds, wrens and roadrunners have struggled to survive, said Mark Howery, wildlife diversity biologist for the Wildlife Department.
According to WildCare in Noble, species like white pelicans, double-crested cormorants and pie-billed grebes are in their northernmost winter range in Oklahoma and were not equipped to deal with the subzero temperatures. WildCare received many calls about pelicans and cormorants.
“Cormorants in particular seem to be hard hit,” said Kyle Abbott, WildCare’s staff veterinarian, who visited Lake Hefner one day last week and reported that scores of cormorants had died.
After a record year of receiving animals in 2020, WildCare already is 50 percent busier than a year ago at this time because of the Arctic storm. Last week, the animal sanctuary had received almost 100 animals as of Friday and were expecting many more over the weekend. As the snow melted, people caring for critters at home started bringing them to WildCare.
The number of calls to the sanctuary about animals in distress had grown from 28 on Feb. 14, the first day of the storm, to a total of 398 through Thursday, said Inger Giuffrida, executive director of WildCare.
Calls to WildCare were being answered 24 hours a day from people who had questions about what to do about animals they had found who were struggling to survive. Most of the inquiries were about birds, especially waterbirds, Giuffrida said.
Frozen fish Most sport fish like bass will have survived the frigid weather by heading to deeper water, but as the state begins to thaw, people may notice small dead fish floating at some Oklahoma lakes, according to the Wildlife Department.
Threadfin shad, a popular baitfish species in Oklahoma, are a subtropical fish native to the deep southern portions of the United States that have been transplanted into Oklahoma waters for their value as a forage fish for most sport fish species. Threadfin shad can’t handle extended periods of cold weather, becoming stressed in water temperatures below 50 degrees, and can experience large die offs in temperatures below 41 degrees.
Holmes said Lake Texoma, where the striped bass feed on threadfin shad, dipped to at least 39 degrees last week. Many Oklahoma lakes likely will see threadfin shad kills.
“There will be threadfin shad die-offs, but it’s too early to say how extreme that is going to be,” Holmes said.
And if you’re thinking the extreme cold last week at least means there will be less mosquitoes and ticks around this summer, Holmes said don’t count on it.
“Unfortunately, we will still have mosquitoes and ticks when it does warm up,” he said.