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Alligators are frequent visitors to Lou Guillette's University of Florida classroom.
"You're on an airboat, in a swamp, at night, hunting an alligator," Guillette says. "That's why you go on thrill rides. That's why we watch Shark Week on TV."
The adrenaline rush isn't his only motivation, however. Dedicated to the welfare of Alligator mississippiensis, Guillette has become the patron saint of alligators, so to speak, working to ensure their reproductive health and preserve their rightful place in the ecology of Florida's waterways. And now he's beginning to extend his studies on the impact of pollutants on alligator reproduction to mammals, whose hormonal systems are remarkably similar to those of reptiles. In the process, he's also introducing a host of students to the rewards of practicing hands-on science.
Through an HHMI professorship awarded in April 2006, Guillette is developing a mentoring program that promotes collaboration among graduate students, undergraduates, and area high schoolers (see sidebar, Giving Students Responsibility). And the mentoring isn't limited to the classroom and lab; Guillette regularly takes crews of students on his collecting trips.
Guillette first started plucking alligators out of Florida's lakes in the mid-1980s. State game officials wanted to understand the reptiles' reproduction so they could better manage permits for alligator farmers to harvest eggs and animals, and at the time Guillette was UF's resident expert on alligator reproduction.
Over the next few years, Guillette's team gathered data from lakes all over Florida.
"We started out doing some basic reproductive biology, partly because the alligator farmers wanted data," Guillette says. "As we went along, we realized things didn't add up. It was like we were trying to put a square peg in a round hole, and it just didn't fit."
Photo: Minnich Photo