I lived in Florida in a community full of lakes for five years, so I’ve very familiar with alligators. During the day it wasn’t unusual to find one sunning itself on a lakeshore or even ambling down the road to another water body for a swim. There are a lot of interesting things I could say about these giant reptiles. Here are just a few of them.
Photograph by Lisa Yount.
They are a keystone species.
This means that they play an important role in their ecosystem and support tons of other species just by being alligators. Their main service to their area is their habit of digging deep wallows in pond and river edges to keep cool. These holes provide water for many species during the dry season. Gator nests also are used by many species of turtle for incubating their eggs, and the nests also play a role in peat production in certain areas like the Everglades.
They almost went extinct.
Overhunting and habitat loss in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries led to a rapid decline of the American alligator over much of its range. It was listed as endangered in 1967 (this was under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973), hunting was banned, and efforts were put in place to help assure the survival of the alligator. These efforts were successful and it was removed from the endangered species list in 1987. Today alligators are thriving over much of their range, even to the point of being pests in some areas.
The largest alligator was allegedly almost 20 feet long.
Most alligators grow to within 9-15 feet, depending on the sex. Back in the nineteenth century, however, an alligator was found on Vermilion Island in southern Louisiana that measured up to 19 feet, 2 inches long and might have weighed up to 2,200 pounds. This is, of course, not confirmed, but it remains as the official record holder for alligator size.
They are good climbers.
You would not think an aquatic reptile such as the alligator would even need climbing skills, but apparently quite a few of them have accomplished the feat. They have been known to climb trees as well as stairs, fences, and even ladders when they are so inclined. An alligator is capable of scaling a 5-6 foot fence without a problem, which is how they keep ending up in people’s swimming pools and back yards.
They are fast for their size and short legs.
An alligator is capable of moving up to 20 miles per hour in the water. On land this speed goes up to 35 miles per hour, though this is only in short bursts. Most of the time they are slow and lazy, but if they are hunting or charging they can move pretty fast. You don’t want to be in their way!
There are only two species of alligator alive today.
The most common is the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) that lives in the southeastern United States, but there is also a lesser known species known as the Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis). Smaller than the American alligator, there are much fewer Chinese alligators still in existence. As of 2017, there were only 300 left, and they are listed as critically endangered. Efforts are underway to try and save this species from extinction.
Attacks on humans have occurred.
Attacks on humans are rare, but they do happen from time to time. The University of Florida says there is about 1 alligator fatality per year. Most of the attacks occur from alligators over 8 feet long and are often associated with gators who have been fed by humans and lost their fear. So let this be a lesson to anyone living in alligator country- don’t feed the wildlife!
They are attentive moms.
Unlike a lot of reptiles, alligator moms stick around after the eggs have been laid. A gator mom guards the nest until the babies are hatched. When she hears their cries, she opens the nest and carries her young to the water in her mouth. She protects them from predators and takes care of them for up to two years until they are old enough to take care of themselves.
Their calls can be very loud.
This is especially true of the male’s mating bellow. This enormous roar is said to be heard up to a mile away, usually during the mating season from April to June. I remember this sound quite well from an experience I had when I was 12 and camped in the back yard. There was a creek not far from our house and I could hear this sound quite clearly. It was rather creepy but interesting at the same time.
They are a very old species.
Sources seem to differ on the age of the North American alligator, saying they are anywhere from 37 million to up to 84 million years old. Regardless of which number is accurate, they have been around for a very long time, much longer than humans. Some relatives of the alligator were around as long ago as 200 millions years. This means that some form of the alligator was walking around with the dinosaurs!
Someone I know used to live on a street between two lakes in central Florida. One day, he and his neighbors watched in awe as an alligator came up the street from the direction of one lake, strolled past them without a care, and ventured down to the other lake. This kind of behavior is one reason why it’s rare to find a body of fresh water in Florida without an alligator. Florida is definitely their territory and humans will just have to get used to it.
National Park Service- www.nps.gov
Animal Sake- www.animalsake.com
Home For Start- www.homeforstart.com
Experience Kissimmee, Florida- www.experiencekissimmee.com
Wilderness & Environmental Medicine
University of Florida- www.ufl.edu
National Geographic- www.nationalgeographic.com
Mental Floss- www.mentalfloss.com