Strickland, B.A., F.J. Vilella, and R. Flynt. 2018. Long-term spotlight surveys of American alligators in Mississippi, USA. Herpetological Conservation and Biology 13(2):331-340.
Accurate population estimates and assessments of trajectory are an essential part of harvest management for game species and conservation action plans for protected species. Long-term monitoring can lead to ecological understanding by identifying biotic and abiotic drivers of population dynamics. Spotlight surveys are a widely used method to monitor abundance and size-class structure of crocodilian populations. The American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) has recovered from significant population reductions in the southeastern United States. The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP) has conducted alligator spotlight surveys since 1971 to monitor populations. We analyzed this long-term alligator survey dataset to assess possible trends in counts as a proxy for potential population changes. We tested for a positive trend in count data over 46 y and evaluated covariates that could influence counts to assist future survey protocols. Alligator counts during 1971–2016 increased across survey routes in Mississippi. This observed positive response may represent an increase of the alligator population in Mississippi as a result of conservation benefits accrued from improved wetland conditions and species-specific management policies. Evaluation of survey covariates indicated recent rainfall and increasing wind velocity had negative effects on alligator counts while increasing water temperature had a positive effect. Implementing robust survey techniques will improve the reliability of alligator monitoring data and their application to the management of alligator populations. Further, these improved approaches may be useful to other conservation and management agencies as well as for other crocodilian species.