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FT LAUDERDALE (CBS) – Alligators have thrived in the Everglades for years but now they struggling to survive.

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University of Florida wildlife ecology professor Frank Mazzotti has been tagging and tracking alligators in the ‘Glades for 15 years. He said the gator population is less than half of what you would expect in a thriving habitat. He added that many of the alligators he’s been finding are not healthy.

“The best of them are skinny. They weigh maybe 80 percent of what an alligator should weigh, but what is of greater concern to us is the proportion of alligators that are emaciated,” said Mazzotti.

Mazzotti and his team at the university are investigating why the change is happening. He said he’s never seen so many gators in such poor condition.

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Shannon Estenoz, the federal government’s point person on Everglades restoration, said she too is concerned about the declining health of the alligator population.

“When they are not doing well, something has gone wrong with the ecosystem. They are the canary in the coal mine,” said Estenoz.

The main culprits are the pumps installed in the 1950s to drain much of the Everglades for development. Scientists say the project ended up polluting the Everglades.

More than $20 billion has been spent on Everglades restoration but there is no estimate on when the work will be done or whether it will be enough to snap the alligators back to health.

About a century ago, the Everglades stretched over four 4 million acres. Today that’s down to about 1.9 million and much of that is now government-protected land and cannot be used for development.

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