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April 21, 2018  |  Login

American Alligator
Alligator mississippiensis

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What Are They Like?

The American alligator has been prowling southern swamps for more than 200 million years. Alligators generally have an olive, brown, gray or nearly black color with a white underside. Algae in the water produce the green color on alligators’ skin, and tannic acid from overhanging trees can make an alligator’s skin even darker. They have powerful jaws with 80 sharp teeth that can shatter a turtle’s shell or make a meal of an unsuspecting animal snatched from the water’s edge. Adult male alligators are typically 11.2 to 14.5 feet (3.4-4.4 meters) in length, and exceptionally large males can reach a weight of nearly half a ton. Adult females average 8.2 to 9.8 feet. (2.5-3 meters). They can live for up to 50 years.

Where Do They Live?

The American alligator is found in freshwater wetlands, swamps, marshes, lakes and slow-moving rivers all over the South, with the largest numbers in Louisiana (1.5 to 2 million) and Florida (1 to 1.5 million). They are also found in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma. They can tolerate salt water for only brief periods because they do not have salt glands.

Did You Know?
The sex of the juveniles is determined by the temperature of the nest during incubation: if the temperature was above 93° F, all are male; below 86° F, all are female, and temperatures in between will produce young of both sexes.

How Are Babies Made?

Alligator breeding season begins in the spring. Breeding takes place during the night, in shallow waters. A female will typically lay 20 to 50 goose-egg-size eggs, and cover them under vegetation. The vegetation heats as it decays, helping to keep the eggs warm. The female alligator remains near the eggs throughout their 65-day incubation period, protecting the nest from intruders. Toward the end of August, the young alligators begin to make high-pitched noises from inside the eggs. This lets the mother know that it is time to remove the nesting material. When the babies hatch, they measure about six to eight inches (15-20 centimeters).

What Do They Eat?

Alligators will eat just about anything, but primarily consume fish, turtles and snails. Small animals that come to the water’s edge to drink also make easy prey. Sometimes even large animals such as white-tailed deer can be pulled to a watery death by a powerful adult alligator. Young alligators mostly feed on insects, crustaceans, snails and fish.

Did You Know?
Eighty percent of young alligators are eaten by birds and raccoons.

What Do They Do?

Alligators travel very quickly in water. They are slow-moving on land, but they can lunge short distances very quickly. The alligator's tail is a weapon capable of knocking a person down or breaking human bones. Alligators will protect their young by attacking anything that comes too close or looks like it could kill one of their young.

How Concerned Should We Be?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has a “Red List” of species in danger globally and listed the American Alligator as “least concern.” Alligators face threats today from habitat destruction, pollution and climate change. Since alligator eggs incubated at lower temperatures are the ones that produce female offspring, temperatures just a few degrees warmer—a very real possibility if climate change predictions hold true—could mean fewer and fewer female alligators, causing the population to take another nosedive. Global warming combined with the stresses caused by pollutants like dioxin and the relentless draining of freshwater wetlands to make room for development pose a considerable threat to American alligators in the wild.

What's Being Done?

The American alligator is a success story of endangered species protection.  Between the loss of wetlands habitat to development, and being hunted nearly to extinction because its skin was prized for shoes, belts, wallets and other leather products, the alligator was endangered by 1967. After the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, alligator hunting became illegal, and state and federal wildlife agencies worked together to help alligator populations recover. The species was removed from the Endangered Species List in June 1987. Even though the Endangered Species Act helped save the American alligator from extinction in the 20th century, the future of this animal is far from assured.


Herpetologist from the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., talks about American alligators

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