The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is the largest reptile in North America. The first reptiles appeared 300 million years ago and ancestors of the American alligator appeared 200 million years ago.
The name alligator comes from early Spanish explorers who called them "El legarto" or "big lizard" when they first saw these giant reptiles. Today, Louisiana and Florida have the most alligators, over one million wild alligators in each state with over a quarter million more on alligator farms.
Reptiles are cold blooded animals, which means that their body temperature is regulated by the temperature of the environment around them. This is why alligators are seen basking in the sun, trying to regulate their body temperature. Because alligators are cold blooded their body rates are slowed down during the winter months to the point where they can no longer catch food efficiently. For this reason alligators enter underground holes and remain dormant through the winter months.
Range and Habitat
Alligators range from central Texas eastward to North Carolina (Figure 1). Louisiana has the highest alligator population, approaching 2 million. Although alligators can be found in ponds, lakes, canals, rivers, swamps, and bayous, in Louisiana the highest population occur in coastal marshes. Of the almost 4.5 million acres of alligator habitat available in Louisiana, coastal marshes account for over 3 million, followed by cypress-tupelo swamp (750,600 acres), Atchafalya Basin swamp (207,000 acres) and lakes (32,105 acres).
Alligators are about 10"-12" in length when they are hatched from eggs. Growth rates may vary from 2" per year to 12" per year, depending on the type of habitat the alligator is living in and the sex, size an age of the alligator. Growth rates slow down as the alligators become older. Male alligators will grow faster and larger than females. Females can grow to approximately 9' in length and 200+ pounds. Males can grow to approximately 13'+ in length and attain 500+ pounds. The record alligator was taken on Marsh Island, Louisiana and was 19 feet 2 inches.
Alligators live about as long as humans and average 70 years, but can be 100 years old, if they can survive a difficult life which starts with biting and fighting that never ends.
Young alligators' diets consist of small animals such as insects, crawfish, small fish, frogs, etc.
As alligators grow large enough their diet changes to include larger animals such as rats, crabs, larger fish and frogs, small birds, etc.
When alligators mature their diet changes to include even larger animals such as muskrats, nutria, beaver, raccoons, large birds and fish, snakes, turtles, deer, etc.
The breeding season in April and May begins a life cycle that evolved from prehistoric times. A giant male or "bull" alligator begins bellowing in the spring to attract females and warn other suitors to stay away. The deep, growling bellow is similar to the roar of a lion and the message is the same-- "I am here...I am big...I am boss, I am the Lion of the Marsh". For two months every year alligators fight to see who is the biggest and the baddest and gets to court the female or "sow" alligators. Alligators are vicious fighters and they don't bluff or wrestle to see who is dominant. They bite, tear, thrash and roll to see who is killed first, or who retreats, badly injured from jaws so powerful they can smash hard-shell turtles. Alligators will eat anything, including each other so they bite and fight all year to eat, court, defend or protect their territory.
The winners are often badly scarred and alligators with missing legs, bobtails, or blinded eyes are not uncommon. They simply are not nice to each other, are ferocious opponents and very tough survivors of the swamp. Still, they mostly shy away from humans unless they are fed, challenged or foolishly offered the opportunity for mischief by careless swimmers at dusk.
Alligators bask in the sun to increase the heat of their cold-blooded bodies before returning to the water to cruise and stalk prey. They will hunt anytime, but particularly at night where they are well adapted with a good sense of smell and vision in the darkness. A light flashed on an alligator at night will reflect a blazing red eye that does not blink with charity to anything within range of its formidable jaws.
As powerful and dangerous as alligators can be, they are strangely very good mothers. The female will defend her eggs and hatchlings from predators or intruders with a hissing warning backed up by chomping jaws and thrashing tail.
She will build a nest in June or July each year of marsh vegetation piled in a mound up to 3 feet high and 10 feet across. Here she will lay up to 60 eggs with the average being about 35. The decaying vegetation creates heat to incubate the eggs that will hatch in about 60 days with 8-inch hatchlings. Interestingly the temperature of the nest determines the sex of the hatchling--above 86 degrees are males and below are females. While it is not known why this curious way of determining "boys and girls" evolved, it probably helped alligators survive when the lower global temperatures from a colliding comet most likely caused the extinction of other dinosaurs. Alligators, and their cousins the crocodiles, produced even more females under the cosmic cloud that shaded the earth, and nesting increased, with warmer nests and water giving them a better chance to survive.
The hatchling develops an "egg tooth" on top of its snout to slit open the egg. Out pops the head and it immediately starts chirping. Soon the whole clutch is chirping to signal momma gator it's time to leave the nest. The hatchlings cannot get out on their own, so the female digs open the nest and sets them free. If an egg doesn't hatch properly, she may gently break the egg in her massive jaws to help the hatchling get out, and may even carry some hatchlings to the water in her mouth. There in the "guard pool" the young gators remain for the next 6 months under the watchful and protective eye of the female. The young may stay near the nest site for a couple of years. During the winter, alligators will enter underground holes and remain dormant. As spring arrives, alligators emerge from winter dormancy and the annual process (mating, nesting, winter dormancy, etc.) begin again.
Baby alligators are normally black streaked with pale yellow stripes down the flank. White, or albino alligators are rare and have only been found in Louisiana. Less than fifty white alligators are in captivity and an adult has never been seen in the wild. If predators don't get the easily seen white hatchling, then sunburn does. Rare blue-eyed white alligators can be seen at Audubon Zoo and the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans.
Young alligators are called hatchlings but could be called "snaplings" since they hatch from the egg biting and begin snapping up insects soon after birth. They graduate to minnows, then frogs, birds, mammals and eventually to anything that can't eat them first. And a lot of other animals eat alligator hatchlings, particularly herons, egrets and even largemouth bass.
The mortality is high and only about 10-20% of all hatchlings will survive to become breeders at 6 to 8 feet. The rest are victims to other predators including the cannibalistic male alligator. Alligators grow about a foot a year up to 6 feet and females rarely grow above 9 feet while males will grow to 10 feet and more.
A giant alligator is like an armored battleship protected by a shield of horny plates on his back, fierce teeth in the bow and propelled by a powerful tail capable of breaking the legs of prey or intruders. The only weakness is a brain the size of a lima bean that limits thinking to eat, bite, fight, mate and start all over. After 8 feet the only real threat to an alligator is another alligator or man. Neither of which could eliminate all alligators by taking them because they are shrewd survivors. They learn the sound of boats and shine a light too often in their eyes, and they retreat swiftly underwater into the swamp.
Alligators have been harvested for a couple of hundred years. Alligators were first harvested in Louisiana in great numbers in the early 1800's. These alligators were harvested for their skins, which were used to make boots, shoes and saddles, and for their oil, used to grease steam engines and cotton gins. The demand decreased when the leather made from the skins was thought not to be durable. In the mid 1800's the demand for alligator skins increased again. These skins were used to make shoes and saddles for the confederate troops during the Civil War. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, commercial tanning processes began in New York, New Jersey and in Europe. This process made the alligator skin soft and durable. Between 1962 and 1971 the alligator hunting season was closed statewide due to low numbers. In 1972 the alligator season was opened only in Cameron Parish and lasted only 13 days. Other parishes were gradually added until the season became statewide in 1981. Louisiana now has a wild alligator season that harvests between 34,000-37,000 alligators annually during the month of September. This season lasts approximately 30 days. The alligators harvested during this wild season are valued at over $13,000,000 for the meat and skins combined.
Louisiana began an alligator ranching program in 1986 which allows individuals to collect alligator eggs on private lands and incubate and hatch those eggs under artificial conditions. The farmers then raise these alligators until they reach 3'-5' in length. At this time, the farmer has to return a percentage of the animals back to the wild. The remaining percentage can be sold by the farmer. Louisiana now has an alligator egg collection program consisting of the collection of over 500,000 eggs. The alligator farming industry also harvests 250,00-350,000 alligators valued at over $81,000,000 annually.
Alligators are a renewable natural resource. Conservative estimates have valued these resources at 80 to 90 million dollars, providing significant, direct economic benefit to Louisiana. By placing an economic value on alligators, landowners are offered incentives to not only conserve wetlands but also enhance them, so as to increase alligator populations. Wetland conservation and enhancement will not only benefit alligators but birds, fishes, furbearers, and other animals that live in wetland environments as well. Through wise utilization and proper management, Louisiana's alligator population continues to increase while at the same time allowing for alligator/alligator eggs to be harvested. The economic value of the alligator encourages landowners and communities to manage it for long term return. So a value is also placed on the wetlands where they live that encourages everyone to keep the marsh "wet and wild" and conserve alligators forever.