Alligator mississipiensis Photo Fiona Sunquist ©
Early Spanish explorers who encountered these reptiles named then “el lagarto” meaning lizard. Later, settlers called them “allagarto”, which was then corrupted to “alligator”.
Alligators are found only in the southeastern United States, mostly in Florida and coastal portions of Louisiana. The species is also found in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Georgia, and North and South Carolina.
A large adult alligator can weigh as much as 1000 pounds (455 kg) and may live to be 30 years old. The longest alligator of record was killed deep in a Louisiana swamp by E. A. McLlhenny in the early 1900’s. The beast was too big to get out of the swamp so he estimated the animal’s length using his rifle; it measured about 584 cm (19.1 ft). The record for Florida is a 531 cm (17.2 ft) alligator killed at Lake Apoka in 1956.
Alligators are olive-brown to black with creamy white around the jaws, and on the neck and belly. They have a broad snout, and 74-80 conical teeth, some of which can be as large as your little finger. Below each tooth is a replacement, which appears when the primary tooth is damaged or worn. However, these teeth are not designed for chewing – they are used for grabbing and holding. The muscles that close the jaw can exert literally tons of pressure, but muscles for opening the jaw are weak, and an alligator’s jaw can be held closed with a thick rubber band. This fact is skillfully exploited during most alligator wrestling shows.
Alligators live mainly in freshwater swamps and marshes, but also in rivers, lakes and ponds. They can live in brackish water for short periods, and are occasionally seen in mangrove swamps. Some 1.5 million alligators live in Florida, many of them in close proximity to people. They are easy to see, often sunning themselves beside roadside ‘borrow’ ponds. Look for a low ‘V’ shaped wake with small bumps at the apex.
Alligators are carnivorous. Baby alligators eat a variety of insects, small fish, frogs, and snails. Larger alligators will eat almost anything including fish, turtles, mammals, birds, reptiles, carrion and even other alligators. They also eat stones, sticks and aluminum cans. The stomachs of harvested alligators have been found to contain stones, fishing lures, aluminum pull tops, dog collars, and plastic debris. A large gator living in a pond in west Florida had a stomach full of dog collars when it was finally killed. Trappers had been led to the dog killing-gator by a radio collar on a missing hunting dog. The alligator had eaten the dog radio-collar and all.
Feeding activity is governed by water temperature – alligators stop eating when the water temperature falls below 20-23 degrees C (68-73° F). For this reason, alligator farmers keep young gators in tanks with water heated to about 32 degrees C (90° F) to encourage them to eat and grow year round. Under these conditions captive raised alligators can reach 2 meters in length in two years. Under normal conditions in the wild, males are often ten years old before they reach 2 meters in length.
Courting males bellow and slap the water with their heads. Both sounds advertise the male’s presence and attract females. A bellowing gator makes a sound like a lion roaring. With its head up and tail arched out of the water, the gator vibrates his sides to produce low frequency sounds, which create ripples and makes the water jump from the surface above his body.
Photo Fiona Sunquist ©
After mating, the female constructs a mound of mud and torn vegetation on an elevated site. She digs a hole in the top of the mound and lays 20-50 eggs. The mound functions as a sort of compost heap – the heat of the decaying vegetation and the warmth of the sun keeps the nest temperature fairly constant. As with sea turtles and many other crocodilians, the temperature inside the nest chamber determines the sex of the young. Low temperatures, below 30 degrees C (86 F), result in more females. Higher temperatures, above 34 degrees C (93 F), result in more males. Nest temperatures between these two extremes produce a more balanced sex ratio.
Alligator mothers provide an amazingly high degree of parental care for their eggs and young. For about 65 days – or until the eggs hatch – she remains nearby, guarding the nest. Raccoons, black bears and feral pigs are the major predators of alligator eggs. Nesting success varies but in Florida it is normally about 50%. When the eggs are ready to hatch, the young make a high-pitched grunting sound that stimulates the female to break open the nest. As the hatchlings emerge from the eggs she carries them to the water in her mouth, pulling her tongue down to form a sort of pouch. Newly hatched alligators are about six to eight inches long and remain together near the nest in groups known as ‘pods’ through their first winter. Females defend the young against predators but despite this advantage almost 80% of hatchlings die within the first two years of life. Almost everything – from herons to snakes, otters and even large fish and other alligators - eat them.
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