All About Alligators
The privilege of living in South West Florida means sharing our backyards with some of the most stunning wildlife in the United States including the American alligator. Seeing a long snout, scaly body, and short stubby legs conjures images from prehistoric times, but remember these ugly, ancient beasts play an important role in the ecology of our state’s wetlands.
Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officially classifies this reptile’s legal status as “threatened due to similarity of appearance to other endangered and threatened crocodilians.” This provides federal protection for alligators and permits state-approved management and control programs. The alligator is listed by the State of Florida as a species of special concern, and only individuals with proper licenses and permits can legally take them.
Most of the time, alligators are content to swim in our lakes or sun themselves, waterside. Occasionally, like most creatures, they like to roam. My son, Jeff on his way home from work one night almost ran over a six-footer. “I just turned onto our street,” he later told me. “It was after midnight. The alligator was just lying there looking like he was waiting to cross the road. It surprised me.”
Luckily Jeff was safe in his car. But if you’re in the habit of strolling the fairways particularly at dusk, remain diligent. These creatures tend to move and feed after twilight and just before sunrise. Their heads contain tiny nodules that act as sensors from which they can determine the presence, size, movement, and location of a nearby animal. Using these sensors, they size up potential prey and decide it’s worth going after. Alligators have been seen stalking prey for hours before making a move.
Adult alligators eat fish, small mammals, and birds usually after the unfortunate creature wonders into or on the edge of a pond. Alligators eat small prey whole and bite chunks out of large prey after it dies usually from drowning.
All that food results in a good-sized animal. Female alligators rarely exceed 9 feet in length according to the State of Florida statistics, however males have been recorded as big as 14’5/8”. The record weight is 1,043 pounds, the girth of a large male captured in Orange Lake in Alachua County.
Alligators reproduce when they are between 8 to 15 years old. Mating season begins in early April and lasts through May and into early June. This is a time to be particularly cautious, as a frisky male in search of a mate can be quite unforgiving. A recent article in the local paper told the tale of a golf ball hunter who claimed an amorous male mounted him while he was diving for balls in a local pond. Not a spot any of us would want to share!
Female alligators lay between 32 to 46 eggs, and the tiny ones hatch in early September feeding mostly on insects. This is another time for cautiousness. Females guard the nest with their lives. Typically very few hatchlings survive. Raccoons and older alligators, including the father are their biggest predators. Yes, alligators are cannibals. Others lose their lives to disease and accidents. Those that make it, tend to grow a foot a year.
The American alligator can be found from Okalahoma down into eastern Texas, across the south and up to North Carolina. They prefer fresh water lakes and slow moving rivers but can be found in most waterways in Florida including saltwater marshes.
Being reptilian means they are sensitive to heat and generally, alligators are most active at temperatures between 82° and 92° Fahrenheit. They stop eating when the thermometer dips below 70° F, and they become completely dormant at 55° F. In fact, according to information on the Audubon website, an adult alligator with a full stomach can die at low temperatures since digestion is reliant on heat. Food will literally rot in the animal’s stomach thus causing a massive infection, a most terrible demise.
Evidence indicates that birds rather than other reptiles are more closely related to alligators, and that their ancestry dates back to prehistoric times. Incidentally other than their size, they haven’t changed much in appearance or habit in millions of years, making them truly ancient.
Here are a few safety tips from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission:
- Swimmers, waders, fisherman, golf ball hunters are vulnerable to attacks in any fresh body of water or salt marsh in Florida unless signage indicates the waterway is free of alligators. Sticking your hand or even a long poll in the water to retrieve a golf ball is dangerous. “Think before you go after that golf ball,” our General Manager reminds us. “Is your life worth $1.50?”
- Protect small children and pets around any of the waterways. Do not let pets drink out of the ponds. Do not let small children go near the ponds. Do not squat anywhere near a pond. Alligators perceive prey by size, squatting makes you look smaller and thus a possible meal. A Sanibel woman died last year after being attacked by a large alligator. She was simply trimming bushes near a pond.
- State law prohibits the feeding, capturing, or keeping of these animals. These are wild animals and cannot be tamed.
- Observe and photograph alligators from safe distances. They are afraid of and usually stay clear of humans but if provoked, they will attack. This is especially true of a female guarding a nest.
- Do not dispose of fish scraps or any other garbage in the waterways. Clean fish well away from the ponds or any other body of water. Cleaning fish near a body of water in Florida is like ringing the dinner the bell to an alligator.
- If one should chase you, remember, alligators can run up to 30 mph but only in a straight line, and they have little endurance. Run away in a zigzag fashion, and the alligator will give up very quickly.
- If a nearby alligator hisses, that’s a sign of forthcoming aggressive behavior. Move away quickly.
Log on to the websites below for a look at some interesting facts about these huge predators.
www.myfwc.com/gators - Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
www.echantedlearning.com/subjects/alligotor.shtml - Enchanted Learning.Com
www.audubon.org search on alligators - Audubon Society
www.npca.org, search for alligators - National Parks Conservation Association