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Tech professor's project aims to save crocs, aid poor

By Marlena Hartz | Avalanche-Journal

 


Jim Watkins / Lubbock Avalanche Journal

Texas Tech biology professor Lou Densmore with a frozen Morelet's crocodile specimen he will examine. (Jim Watkins photo)

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Lou Densmore casually scoops a Burmese python, 14 feet long and wide as a human thigh, from its cage.

The Texas Tech biology professor has scouted snappier predators - crocodiles - abroad and alone in brackish and swampy waters. In comparison, Elvis, the python, stretched across a concrete floor, seems mild.

The python is one of several reptiles caged on the sixth floor of the biology building, the same floor where Densmore's lab is located. Most of the animals were donated to the university and are used to educate children, Densmore said.

Elvis and items in Densmore's lab - microscopes, test tubes, even the frozen crocodile specimen to be examined later - only hint at the most ambitious project of Densmore's 30-year career in crocodilian biology.

The professor believes captive breeding farms for the American crocodile - a vital, but endangered predator in subtropical regions from Florida to Venezuela - can save the crocodiles and establish a source of income for some of the world's poorest people, two goals often at odds.

It's an idea that challenges some conservation methods, including the Endangered Species Act, which, with few exceptions, prohibits the sale of endangered species.

"(The farms are) a very novel idea. ... (But they) will eliminate poaching and actually protect the animals in the long run," Densmore said.

He does have a road map: Studies indicate similar approaches have revived American alligators in Louisiana and Florida.

The states established alligator hunting programs in the 1970s. Seven years later, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified the American alligator from endangered to threatened, and in 1987, pronounced it fully recovered. Densmore and others attribute the reversal to management programs that incorporate legalized hunting.

"(Alligators) are no longer thought of as the government's gators' but have become my gators' and get the same level of protection by these farmers' as any other valuable crop," reads one of Densmore's grant proposals.

Tech recently awarded Densmore $35,000 in seed money to start a program that will ultimately create American crocodile breeding farms in Panama, where people would be permitted to kill a certain number of the reptiles for their meat and skin. Other project partners include the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, Densmore said.

If the pilot program succeeds, it would be the first conservation and management effort involving a New World crocodile, to his knowledge.

Miryam Venegas de Anaya, a Panamanian doctoral student who works with Densmore at Tech, is one of the project's strongest advocates.

"In Third World countries, we don't know how to manage our resources," she said. "We need to understand how technology has changed and use all the resources we can to improve our lives."

Before Densmore and his colleagues move forward, they want to chart American crocodile genetics, determining how much genetic diversity exists and how it varies from region to region.

It's a step conservationists skipped in their effort to save the dusky seaside sparrow, a tiny songbird of salt marshes that is now extinct. Humans introduced genes from other sparrows, muddling the dusky's genome, Densmore said.

Decoding population genetics is a critical part of creating American crocodile farms: The farms should include crocodiles that are representative of wild crocodiles already in the region, so if the wild population ever plunges, it could be safely supplemented with captive-bred, pedigreed crocodiles, Densmore believes.

On the computer screen in the biology building, a chart of red, blue and green lines, with Himalayan peaks and valleys, could pass for a map of heart rates or the stock market, though it's a snapshot of snake DNA.

To be more precise - as Densmore and his colleagues tend to be - the chart shows maternally inherited, mitochondrial DNA of the Concho water snake, a reptile indigenous to Texas that has been listed as threatened since 1986.

Plotting Concho DNA samples allows David Rodriguez, a postdoctoral fellow who works with Densmore, to identify genetic variations in the species, which can indicate cross-breeding or new migration patterns, he said.

Rodriguez and others on Densmore's team use the same methods to study American crocodile DNA.

If the Panama pilot program succeeds, Densmore said he and his colleagues will lobby bigger organizations, such as the United Nations, to expand the program to other regions, and maybe, other crocodilians.