KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. (WOFL FOX 35 ORLANDO) -
From the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center, one would expect the rumble that comes along with launching rockets into space. From the ponds in front of those massive launch structures, comes a rumble of a different kind.
It comes from the belly of an alligator, and it’s a noise that one team of NASA scientists have come to expect. The biologists have been yanking gators from the waters of KSC for six years.
“Nobody realizes that this study is really going on. It’s kind of a good kept secret,” said aquatics biologist Russell Lowers.
Lowers leads of team of three biologists.
"It's just like you and me going to the doctor giving a blood sample. That's what we do with these guys,” Lowers said.
They draw blood and urine from the alligators and take tissue samples and measurements. They also microchip the animals.
KSC sits on a 140,000-acre national wildlife refuge, so the alligators have time and space to grow and possibly be impacted from the chemicals that come from decades of launching rockets.
"If you did have a major component that was in the environment, or here on Kennedy Space Center, we'd want to know about it, because it affects the workers," Lowers explained.
The alligators’ place at the top of the food chain means they’re affected by everything that goes into the environment.
"They eat mammals, they eat fish, turtles, so they contain all of the contaminates that we might be looking for," Lowers said.
The samples go off to scientists around the world who are studying the effects on animals and, by extension, humans.
In order to trap the gators, the biologists scan the waters for one of the several thousand gators that live on the refuge, reel them in with either a rope or a fishing pole, tape up their snouts, and settle them down. It’s exciting to watch, but Lowers points out that it’s not nearly as dramatic as some reality television shows make in look.
"They're pretty docile, once you get them up on the bank and you calmly sit on them," Lowers said of the alligators.
In order to settle them down, the biologists straddle the alligator, wrap their feet around the animal’s hind legs, and cover its eyes with a pillow case. The scientists are usually able to collect their samples and take their measurements in about fifteen minutes. Then, they rip the duct tape off of the gator’s mouth. The team says the animals always back up into the water right after that.