ACCURACY AND INACCURACY CAN BE INTERTWINED ON THE INTERNET

by Whit Gibbons

November 9, 2008


Without question the Internet is a boon to researchers, whether they are seeking information for work, for pleasure, or merely to satisfy idle curiosity. But it can also be a trap for the unwary. Just because information is posted on the Net doesn't mean it's true. On the other hand, some seemingly incredible nature shots are the result of someone being in the right place at the right time with a camera at the ready.

One photo that has made the email rounds is of an alligator swimming in a lake while carrying a full-grown deer in its mouth. I have received the picture as an email attachment several times from people wanting to know whether the photo is real. Yes, it is.

Terri Jenkins, a fire management officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, photographed the alligator transporting a deer across a lake. I talked with her about the spectacular sighting. During helicopter flights around Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge south of Savannah, Ga., she has seen many deer and many alligators. This particular time she saw the two animals together, and she had her camera in hand. She estimated the alligator was more than 12 feet in length, a reasonable assessment. The largest alligators can be a foot or so longer.

Big alligators probably eat lots of deer each year. And the idea that a large gator could swim across a lake with a deer carcass in its mouth is not far-fetched. But the chances of someone being in a helicopter, camera at the ready, while an alligator carries its kill across a body of water must be fairly slim. It's not surprising that many people wonder if the image is genuine.

Unfortunately, the text accompanying these photos on the Internet is not always reliable. If you Google "gator with deer in mouth" or "alligator carrying deer" (without the quote marks) you can see the photos Terri took. The exasperating part from an educational perspective is that many websites have the facts wrong. The first three websites I checked all gave erroneous locations for the lake. One said the photos were taken in Ocala, Fla., another at Cross Lake, La., and another at Lake Conroe, Tex. Such inaccuracies call into question the credibility of everything else on the website. Several websites (all from Texas) said the alligator was 23 feet long! This is an absurd assertion. When you are researching wildlife observations on the Web (or any other topic for that matter), be sure you are dealing with a credible site.

I received another email with attached photos from a friend who is an experienced hunter intrigued with wildlife of any sort. His note said, "Take a look at these snake pictures. I have seen copperheads do this twice, both times in September. Are the rattlesnakes fighting or are they preparing to breed?" I have since received the same images from other people.

The photos are of two large western diamondback rattlesnakes entwined around each other, much like snakes on a caduceus, the symbol of the U.S. medical profession. The back half of the snakes' bodies are on the ground with head and front half held vertically as high as they can reach. This is not courtship between a male and female; it is a fight akin to an arm wrestling contest to determine which male is dominant. The winner is the one who topples the other to the ground. Winning means getting to mate with the female rattlesnake, which is usually nearby and is the cause of the male-male combat. Interestingly, male rattlesnakes and copperheads do not bite each other in these fights, although either could deliver a lethal bite. The snakes shown were western diamondbacks, but one email I received with those photos attached said the snakes were from South Carolina; another said they were from Alabama. Both states are outside the geographic range of the species.

Like the pictures of the deer-toting alligator, the ones of the battling snakes are genuine and demonstrate normal behavior for the animal in question. The Internet is a powerful tool that allows people to access such fascinating information. But as with any tool, the trick is to wield it properly.



If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)

 

 
SREL HomeUGA Home