Alligator Fun Facts:
See how many Fun Fact answers you can find!
- Are Alligators related to Dinosaurs?
- How big was the largest alligator ever found?
- How many eggs can a mother alligator lay?
- What does an alligator egg feel like?
- What decides if an alligator baby will be a boy or a girl?
- How much does a newly hatched alligator weigh?
These Are Truly Ancient Creatures……
I find alligators, with their silent armored presence, to be fascinating creatures! There are only two species of alligators in the entire world- the American Alligator of the southeastern United States, and the rare Chinese alligator of the Yangtse River in China. Alligators, and their 21 other relatives, are the last of the living reptiles closely related to dinosaurs. With ancestors beginning 245 million years ago, the group – which includes alligators, crocodiles, gharials, and caiman – appeared during the Triassic period, about 80 million years ago, and have survived the eons almost unchanged. Species we see today have changed little in the last 65 million years.
What’s in a Name….
We humans love to categorize things. Therefore, the alligator is a member of the scientific Class “Reptilia” [reptiles], the Order “Crocodylia” [crocodilians], and the Family “Alligatoridae” [alligators]) The word “Alligator” comes from the Spanish explorers who dubbed the creature “El legarto”, which means “big lizard”. Alligators, and the American Crocodile (found only at the very southern tip of the Florida Everglades), are our largest reptiles.
(Many people have a hard time telling alligators and crocodiles apart. An easy way to tell is to look at the snout! Crocs have a very narrow nose, and alligators have a broad, rather flat snout! Also, when looking at them with their mouths closed, with crocodiless, you can see both the upper and lower teeth, but with alligators, you will usually see only the top teeth exposed- though you will want to make this observation from a distance!)
Extinctions vs. Preservation
Once teetering at the brink of extinction due to over-hunting, with protection, the American Alligator has made an amazing comeback to become one of the Conservation movement’s greatest success stories. Today, they are now seen all across the southeastern United States, from the Carolinas south to Florida, and westward into Texas.
How Big Do They Get, and What Do They Eat??
The largest alligator ever recorded (in the early 1900’s) was 19’ 2”, but today, most male alligators do not get over 13’ long, and females about 8’ long. In the wild, they live 35 – 50 years. Wild alligators eat pretty much whatever they can catch – fish, turtles, snakes, small mammals (nutria, muskrats, beaver, deer), waterfowl, and even smaller alligators! Most alligators have a natural fear of man, and would rather avoid humans. Almost all instances of an alligator attacking a person have happened from an alligator that has been fed by humans. This makes them associate people with food, and causes them to lose all fear of people. NEVER feed an alligator!
Masters of their Environment………
Alligators are a very important part of the swamp ecosystem. During the “dry” season, as the marshes begin to dry up, an alligators will dig a “gator hole”- a depression in the swamp that causes water to gather there, while the rest of the swamp dries up. This small area of water causes a concentration of fish and other prey, which in turn causes water birds to come there to hunt, and other animals to come there to drink. Naturally, all this activity helps the alligator find his meals, as well!
All Grown Up and Ready For Love…..
Alligators become sexually mature when they reach a length of about 6’ (they are usually 10 – 12 years old by this point). I have heard and seen males in the Everglades making their booming vocalizations earlier in the year. But in Florida, their actual breeding season begins in April and through May. When the males vocalize, they arch their heads and tails above the water, and the rumbling bellow sound they make causes the water droplets to dance across their backs. This truly ancient ritual is an amazing thing to witness. The sound carries for long distances across the swamp, and when you hear it, there can be no doubt what it is. Bull males become quite territorial during mating season (though just a few months before, they were all sleeping peacefully side-by-side in the warm sunshine of late winter). Now, the males show no tolerance for each other, and will defend their territories vigorously against other males. Females, hearing the love calls of the males, come to investigate. Courtship rituals are quite complex, and in the end, mating takes place out in open water.
Mothers With An Attitude…………..
After mating, the female moves off to a nice marshy area that she selects, and begins to construct a nest, a mound of sticks, mud and vegetation, 3’ high, and 10’ across. (And the male goes off in search of another female. He may breed with 10 or more females within his territory during the breeding season, but he takes no part in “childrearing”.)
The female now lays her 20 to 60 eggs in her well prepared nest in late June or early July, and covers them with nesting material. This collection of eggs is called a “clutch”, and the incubation period of the eggs is 65 days. Having a very small home range (less than a third of an acre) the female alligator fearlessly guards her nest against intruders throughout the incubation period. Raccoons, for example, are notorious nest raiders, and have been known to completely destroy a nest. Other bandits are skunks, opossums, fire ants, feral hogs, escaped monitor lizards, even crows (if somebody else has already torn open the nest.) Never disturb an alligator nest. A very protective mother will believe her eggs are threatened and take swift action. Out of the water, an alligator can run up to 20 mph, for short distances.
Hard or Soft Shells?
That all depends on the age of the egg!! When first laid, the eggs are hard on the outside, having an almost porcelain quality. But inside the hard layer, is a soft leathery inner layer. As the baby inside grows and develops, the hard outer layers begins to thin, as the baby absorbs the nutrients from the outer shell. By the time the baby hatches, most of the outer layer is gone, and the eggs have a flexible leathery appearance.
Boy or Girl?
Whether the hatching baby will be a boy or a girl is determined by the egg’s location within the nest! As the nest plant matter decomposes, it creates heat. Warmth of 90°-93° produces males, and 82°-86° produces females. Different parts of the nest will be warmer than other parts, and this creates the different genders!
Hatching takes place in late August or in September. The high pitched squeaking and grunting sounds the babies make before hatching helps get their mother’s attention and signals their nest mates to all hatch together. Baby alligators are not able to dig themselves out of the nest. Hearing her babies call, the mother alligator gently digs open the nest, and lifting any unopened eggs into her mouth, she uses her tongue to gently roll it around against the roof of her mouth. This cracks the egg and helps the baby to escape the shell. Scooping up the new babies, the mother alligator will often gently carry some of the newborns down to the water.
It’s a Long, LONG Way to the Top of the Food Chain…..
Though ‘most everyone thinks of the alligator as the top of the food chain, during the first few years of life, the situation is quite reversed. Young alligators often end up as food for the very swamp residents that would one day have been their prey – raccoons, snakes, herons, egrets, otters, osprey, large fish- even other alligators! In fact, despite their mother’s best efforts, 50 % will be eaten in their first year. When scientists mimic the distress call of a baby alligator (a series of grunt sounds) and make splashing sounds in the water, it causes the mother alligator or other adults in the area to respond quickly to aid the babies. So, if you see a baby in the wild who appears to be alone, remember, the young stay close to their mother. Even if the mother is not visible, she will be watching you and will decide to take swift action to protect her baby.
Newly hatched baby alligators, known as “hatchlings”, are about 6-8 inches at birth, and weigh only 2 ounces! And though their momma remains close for protection, babies must find their own food (worms, snails, insects, and small fish). This is why they hatch out with a full set of tiny sharp little teeth!! After birth, the hatchling alligators form groups called “pods” and may stay together near their nest site for several years. They usually grow 6-12 inches a year, and if the young alligator is lucky enough to reach 4 feet, its most serious predator for the rest of its life, will be man.
With unparalleled behavior for the reptile world, their momma will do her best to provide protection for the next 1-2 years. The female alligator will remain near her brood for the first year or two, defending them against all predators. And in the beginning, she makes a great safe platform on which to climb, launch, sun, and sleep! I had to capture this tender time in sculpture!