The American alligator or alligator mississippiensis is a large crocodilian reptile found in the Southeastern US. Once occupying a spot on the federal endangered species list, gator populations have recovered and are common in many parts of the Southeast. You can even see them on an Everglades excursion.
They can live beyond 60 years of age and are the last living reptiles that were closely related to dinosaurs, with their closest modern animal family being birds. They are cold-blooded, meaning that they cannot regulate their own body temperature. For this reason, it is common to catch gators sunbathing on the banks of Everglades waters, sometimes seen with open mouths to cool themselves. Be sure to keep an eye out for them next time you’re on one of our world-famous airboat tours.
The American alligator is found from southern Virginia and North Carolina along the Atlantic Coast, down to Florida, and along the Gulf of Mexico as far as Texas’ Rio Grande. Alligators live in swampy areas, rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds. They are primarily freshwater animals preferring slow-moving rivers but can also be found in brackish bay water. They can only tolerate salt water for brief periods because they do not have salt glands to excrete excess salt.
Adapting to Salty Water – The Alligator’s Challenge
American alligators will go in salty water even though they don’t have the salt glands to live there full-time, like crocodiles. If they stay in saltwater or even brackish water habitats for too long, they will become dehydrated and lack important food sources from freshwater. Instead, if looking for more food, they will go back and forth between freshwater and saltwater while keeping their system balanced. In saltwater, alligators eat animals like sea turtles and crabs.
Alligators Adapt to Winter Months
When cold weather hits, believe it or not, alligators can survive even ice and snow for periods of time. Through brumation, an alligator’s metabolism slows, and it stays still with its snout above water. Somewhat similar to hibernation, most alligators are able to survive this dip in temperatures.
SIZE & APPEARANCE
American alligators continue to grow with age, but the adult male alligator generally measures between 11 and 15 feet (3.4 to 4.6 m) in length, weighing around 500 pounds (227 kg) but can weigh up to 999 pounds (453 kg). Females are smaller, measuring around 9.8 feet (3 M) and weighing around 201 pounds (91 kg.)
Body Shapes of Wild Alligators
Wild gator’s body shapes vary from long and slender to short and robust, but all have wide snouts, and when their mouths are closed, the upper jaw covers the lower teeth. They have upward-facing nostrils at the end of their snout, allowing them to breathe while mostly underwater. Gator’s bodies are embedded with bony plates called osteoderms or scutes and have muscular flat tails. They have four short legs, the front two having five toes, while the back legs only have four. Despite their short legs, alligators can still run very quickly over short distances.
Why Do Alligators Have Wider Snouts?
Alligators’ broad snouts allow them to exert more force than narrower ones. They use their strong jaws to crush their prey, like a turtle’s shell. These blunt snouts can also be helpful for digging. Alligators dig out ‘alligator holes’ to stay cool when needed since they are not warm-blooded animals. Though the holes may also be used to lure prey in, these abandoned holes later become useful habitats for small animals.
DIET – WHAT DO ALLIGATORS EAT?
Alligators are opportunistic apex predators. The alligator’s natural prey consists of fish, wading birds, snakes, frogs, small mammals, and smaller alligators. Younger alligators eat small fish, aquatic invertebrates, raccoons, crabs, large snakes, turtles, and fish. Obviously, smaller alligators are not able to eat all of the larger animals that adults can hunt.
Role of Alligators as Opportunistic Feeders
Alligators are opportunistic feeders, which means that whatever is the right size and comes into their habitat is fair game to eat. There is a very wide variety of animals that alligators will eat, and they have adapted to live on a steady diet of whatever wildlife is nearby at the time.
How Alligators Hunt and Feed
Alligators are opportunistic predators who ambush their prey and use their extreme biting force to hold on. In a significant portion of catches, they can eat prey whole or without too much work, but for larger prey, they will do a ‘death roll’. This allows them to drown or incapacitate large prey in order to eat their meal. After eating a medium-sized meal, alligators may not have to eat again for up to a week due to their lower metabolism.
Comparing Diets: Young Alligators vs. Adult Alligators
Young alligators eat much smaller prey than adult alligators. Small alligators will eat fish, invertebrates, and amphibians. The adult alligator will eat the same but also large prey such as mammals, birds, and even other reptiles! They are an important part of the food chain in these ecosystems, and their only natural predators once they grow past four feet long are humans and large alligators.
ALLIGATORS VS. CROCODILES
There are many differentiating features between alligators vs crocodiles, but their sharp teeth are the easiest way of distinguishing them. Alligators have the look of an overbite, while crocodiles have alternating top and bottom teeth visible.
Chinese Alligator vs American Alligator: What are the Differences?
There are small physical differences between Chinese Alligators and American Alligators. Chinese alligators are smaller with upturned snouts. Chinese Alligators are critically endangered compared to the other species, which are thriving in the southeastern United States. Chinese alligators only live in the wild in northeastern China, so these two alligator species can not be seen together in the wild.
FUN FACTS ABOUT ALLIGATORS
- The alligator became the official state reptile of Florida in 1987.
- Spanish sailors originally visiting the New World assumed the alligator to be a massive lizard, therefore calling it “el lagarto” or “the lizard.”
- Humans mostly target alligators for their skins but are also hunted for meat.
- Alligator eggs have a hard outer shell in addition to the soft, leathery inner shell most reptiles have.
- Alligators will attract nesting birds with large sticks nearby and then catch an easy meal to eat.
- There is a multi-million dollar industry in which captive alligators are raised for their meat and skin.
Tips to Spot Alligators on Everglades Tours
It is very likely to see many alligators on our Everglades Tours. In the heat of summer, your best bet is earlier in the morning or close to sunset. Look for gators sunning along the water’s edge or floating around in the water. The dry season is a great time to see alligators, but you’re likely to see plenty of alligators anytime you visit the Everglades.
The Myth of Alligator Attacks
While you need to be cautious around bodies of water, especially with children, alligators are not seeking humans to attack. Alligators tend to stay away from humans but can become aggressive during the breeding season. The alligator catches its prey from the water, so if your dog is walking right along the edge of the water, it could become a target. Alligators are mostly peaceful wild animals that we can live near if we keep an eye out for and respect Florida’s wildlife.
Respecting Florida’s Wildlife: Safety Tips for Visitors
- Pack for your outing: plenty of water, insect repellant, and sunscreen are important.
- Dress for the day’s weather forecast and your activity. You may get wet or overheated.
- Always keep a close eye on children and keep them away from bodies of water.
- Do not feed wildlife in Florida, and especially steer clear of feeding alligators.
- Leave the dogs at home. They are not allowed on many trails and wil