A relic of the prehistoric age, the American alligator (Alligator Mississipiensis) is the largest native reptile still found in North America. The ‘gator’ (as it is colloquially known) has long been a symbol of the lush, exotic wilderness areas that lie adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico. But the creature also represents survival; once thought to be on the brink of extinction, the American alligator has staged a remarkable comeback within the last few decades.
The American alligator has been spotted from Texas to North Carolina, though they are most commonly found in Florida and Louisiana. They reside in freshwater lakes, rivers, swamps and marshes (their habitat differentiates them from the distantly related crocodile, which usually dwells in saltwater areas). Scientists estimate that these durable carnivores have made their home in the Southeast region for 150 million years – and somehow avoided extinction when the rest of the dinosaurs were killed off 65 million years ago. As it stands today, the only other living species of alligator is the Chinese alligator, which is significantly smaller in size than its American counterpart but otherwise bears a strong resemblance.
The typical male American alligator measures 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.6 meters) in length, while females tend to be slightly shorter. The largest American alligator on record was documented in 1900, and sprawled a monstrous 19.8 feet. They weigh roughly 1,000 pounds (453 kg). The skin of adult alligators is covered with thick armor, which not only protects the animal but also retains water and regulates its temperature. Gators have prominent eyes and nostrils, and an elongated head with a rounded snout (whereas crocodiles have long, pointed snouts).
American alligators are exclusively carnivorous – and can be dangerous to humans. The animals have a powerful bite, thanks to a mouth that is equipped with between 74 and 80 teeth and a lower jaw that operates using a hinge-like mechanism. Adult alligators are excellent swimmers, and though they may appear awkward on land, they can also move at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour. They primarily feed on small prey, such as fish, turtles, snakes and certain mammals. They hunt by partially or fully submerging their bodies in water, which allows them to stalk their quarry without being detected. For these reasons, alligators are considered supreme predators. Alligator attacks on humans are rare, and usually non-fatal.
Alligators are reproductively active throughout the year, though most consistently throughout the warmer seasons. Their typical breeding period begins in May, when males ‘bellow’ to attract female mates. What follows is a complex courtship ritual that involves various noises, bodily contact, pheromone discharge – and even bubble blowing. By June, the males and females have mated and begun construction of their nesting areas, which are composed of rotting vegetation that will keep the eggs warm. Roughly two months after initial sexual contact, the female will give lay as many as 60 eggs, which are hard-shelled and approximately 3 inches in length. Until the eggs hatch about two months later, the mother remains at the nest and defends her offspring from hungry predators.
When the eggs are ready to hatch, the mother carries them in her mouth one-by-one to the nearest water source. Newly hatched offspring are usually 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) in length. Unlike their darker adult parents, hatchlings are usually yellow in color, and often bear black stripes that run along their backs. Alligator babies are hunted by larger animals, including birds, raccoons, bobcats and even other alligators. Young alligators will typically stay with their parents for two years, at which point they are considered adults.
Today, the American alligator has a thriving population in the American Southeast. However, the animal was listed as a critically endangered species in 1967. Gator numbers had been decimated by urban and agricultural development, poaching and water pollution. This led to a wide-scale collaborative effort, spearheaded by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, to protect alligator habitats throughout the Southeast. Gator farming was also introduced at this time as a solution to the animals’ waning numbers. The plan worked marvelously – and today, the alligator is considered a true success story of the Endangered Species protection program. The animal was removed from the list in 1987, and became the state symbol of Florida that same year. Today, wildlife officials estimate that 1.3 million alligators reside in Florida alone.
US Fish & Wildlife Service Profile: Contains factual information, as well as a habitat map.
Texas Parks & Wildlife Profile: Information about alligator species found in the Western United States.
Sea World – Animal Bytes: Kid-friendly facts about the American alligator.
Alligator Mississippiensis: Comprehensive information from the Florida Museum of Natural History.
American Alligator: Site devoted to the species.
National Parks Conservation Association Profile: More facts about American alligators.