The American Alligator, Alligator Mississippians, is one of two species of living Alligator. It is native to the southeastern United States, where it inhabits wetlands that frequently overlap with human populated areas. It is larger than the other living species, the Chinese Alligator.
The American Alligator has a large, slightly rounded body, with thick limbs, broad head, and a very powerful tail. The tail, which accounts for half of the alligator’s total length, is primarily used for propulsion in the water. It can also be used as a weapon of defense when the animal feels threatened.
Although they can weigh as much as 1100 pounds, they are very agile and can move swiftly in the water. On land they are generally much slower, but can often sprint short distances up to 30 mph.
Alligators eat almost anything, but primarily consume fish, birds, turtles, mammals and amphibians. Hatchlings mostly eat invertebrates such as insects, snails, spiders, and worms. As they grow, alligators gradually move onto larger fish, mollusks, frogs and small mammals like rats and mice. As they continue to grow they will also eat snakes, turtles, birds and moderate sized mammals like raccoons. Once they reach adulthood, any animal living in the water or coming to the water to drink is potential prey. Adults have been known to eat deer, cattle, bears, panthers and even other alligators.
Despite the extensiveness of their shared habitat with humans, alligator attacks on humans are quite rare. Most alligators fear humans due to hunting. Attacks on humans are usually a result of feeding of alligators. Once a human feeds an alligator, it expects food whenever it sees someone. While they can kill a human, they are far less dangerous than the infamous Nile Crocodile and saltwater crocodile. Alligator bites are serious and can cause serious infection. Improper treatment or neglect of a bite may result in an infection that requires the amputation of a limb.
There were only nine fatal alligator attacks on humans throughout the 70’s. 80’s and 90’s, but 11 fatal attacks occurred between 2001 and 2006, and in four days in May of 2006, three people were fatally attacked. When in alligator country, it is a good idea to know which lakes and rivers are inhabited by gators and which are not. Evidence of an area being inhabited by gators include alligator slides onshore (these are markers where the belly of the gator has slid down the bank into the water) large piles of muddy sticks and foliage in spring, and of course occasionally seeing the animals themselves. If one does encounter a hostile gator, it is good to watch the tail, as it may try to knock you down so it can attack easier with its teeth. Don’t panic and don’t let it take you into the water, where it will try to drown you. Climb on top of something high up as alligators cannot climb.
Wetlands are a vital habitat to the continued long-term survival of the American Alligator. As they depend on wetlands, the wetlands also depend on them. As predators, they help control the population of rodents and other animals that may overtax the marshland vegetation. Their greatest value to the marsh and its inhabitants are the water holes that many adult gators create and expand over a number of years. These holes are vital during dry seasons or extensive droughts as they provide a watering hole for other wildlife including fish, insects, crustaceans, birds, snakes, turtles, and alligators themselves. Sometimes an alligator will expand a hole by digging beneath an overhanging bank to create a hidden den. These dens provide a stable environment for the alligator to survive during the dry season and winters.
Although alligators have no vocal chords, males bellow loudly to attract mates and ward off other males during the breeding season. They do this by sucking air into their lungs and blowing it out in intermittent, deep roars.
The female builds a nest of vegetation, sticks, leaves, and mud in a sheltered spot near the water. Once she lays 20 to 50 white eggs, she covers them under more vegetation, which heats as it decays and creates heat to incubate the eggs. Temperature range during incubation determines the sex of the alligator. Warmer incubation means alligators will be male; lower temps mean female. When the young begin to hatch 65 days later, they emit a high-pitched croaking noise and the mother digs them out.
Alligators reach breeding maturity at about 8 to 13 years of age, at which they are about 6 -7 feet long. From here on, the growth rate slows down and continue to grow another 6 -7 feet over the rest of their lifespan. The average lifespan of the American Alligator is 30 years.