GEORGETOWN, SC — Big Bertha might be the best way to understand how valuable Phil Wilkinson has been to the South Carolina coast.
She was one of the first alligators trapped and tagged as part of a study of nesting ecology, among the earliest research done in the state on newly designated endangered species. She was 9 feet, 8 inches long, at that time the largest female alligator to be captured – hence the nickname.
Today, the alligator in South Carolina is no longer endangered. More than 100,000 crawl the coast – thanks in no small part to the work of people like Wilkinson. Big Bertha is still around. Wilkinson still studies her; he’s a retired volunteer maintaining what has become one of the few if not the only long-term studies of a known population of the reptiles. He keeps up an invaluable data set that’s now sought for studies as diverse as environmental contamination and human senescence.
Wilkinson was recently awarded the Order of the Silver Crescent, the highest state honor that can be given to a resident for community service.
The 79-year-old, self-described “creature of the Santee delta” may be the most famous person you have likely never heard of.
Internationally recognized by researchers for his work, Wilkinson is a little uncomfortable with all the fuss.
He’s just unassuming, said Lou Guillette, a Medical University of South Carolina professor who works with Wilkinson for Guillette’s research. The research studies alligators as a sentinel species for environmental contamination and its potential impact on human health.
Wilkinson “could have every right to feel like he’s the ‘owner’ of the data. But Phil sees this as something he wants to share,” Guillette said.
Wilkinson shrugs it off with one of those broad arm gestures that accentuate his conversation.
“It’s not like it’s my data. It’s information the world needs to know about,” he said. “That’s the only way it’s going to do any good.”
It would be too easy to think of Wilkinson as the field work guy and soon-to-be octogenarian who wrestles gators. He grew up haunting the rice fields of the delta, jumped at the chance to go back to school to learn wildlife biology after staring down the prospect of a career with his business economics degree. He loves it out there.
The harsh, head-high cordgrasses where gators nest, “when you’re out there digging through the marsh, that’s not a particularly friendly environment,” he says. “When you’re out there, you know you’re there on everybody else’s terms – all the creatures,” he said. “There’s something comforting for me being out there, knowing that and knowing I’m not unwelcome either.”
After nearly half a century of wildlife biology, he still leans forward with excitement as he describes the importance of the latest research, pointing toward the nearby Pee Dee River with one of those broad sweeps of his arm.
“This all has very pertinent information for human health,” he says describing Guillette’s work. “That stuff that shows up in (alligator) blood is going right past my door in that river.”
Guillette started working with alligators in 1986 at the University of Florida. Every time he asked a biologist or a researcher why they did something the way they did it, the answer was, “Phil Wilkinson worked this out.”
The best example may involve how to trap a nesting alligator. The toothy reptiles tend to be relatively docile and reclusive as crocodilians go. One exception is during nesting.
“They’re never in a good mood around their nests,” Wilkinson said. And “they can move sideways like lightning.”
Wilkinson learned by observing that females rake an incubating nest with their tails to keep it compact and safeguarded against predators. They do it once a day, always approaching from the same side and going across the same way.
So that’s where he sets the snare, just beyond the nest.
As valuable as he has been as a researcher, Wilkinson might be even more valuable as a mentor, Guillette said. Each summer, a handful of graduate students gets to take part in the field study, except for trapping.
“They get to work with one of the ‘grand old men’ of wildlife biology. It’s important for them to see somebody so passionate to have elements of the Lowcountry preserved in a way that kids and grandkids will be able to see it,” Guillette said.
Wilkinson didn’t seek the state honor – didn’t know it existed until he was surprised by the friends who nominated him. The closest he comes to bragging is to recognize that species like the alligator he worked to protect when they were declared endangered are now fully recovered.
“You beat your chest over that. It’s at least a good feeling that we were going in the right direction,” he says.
It says something about Wilkinson that the core work of the research is carried on by a small coterie of research professionals, all of whom use leave time from their jobs to work for free, like him – and by 40-year old Christy Wilkinson, his daughter, a seventh-and-eighth-grade teacher who started working with him when she was 11.
Wilkinson’s computer office is in the laundry room in his home. His field “collection” on the wall is a dozen wide-brimmed hats that don’t hang there for show. They are on pegs by the door to the outside, so he can grab the best one for the day as he leaves for the field.
Peterson is a reporter with The (Charleston) Post and Courier.