The American alligator is a medium to large sized crocodillian living in the southeastern United States. Although these animals are quite a bit larger than humans, they are still medium sized compared to the much larger African and Asian crocodiles such as the thirty foot (9 m) saltwater crocodile. There are only two alligator species, and compared to the other one (the six foot, or 1.8 meter, Chinese alligator) the american alligator is large. As with all reptiles, American alligators are cold blooded. The word “alligator” came from the Spanish phrase “el lagarto” meaning “the lizard.” Their scientific name Alligator mississippiensis means “the lizard of the Mississippi.” This is due to the fact that these alligators live in the Mississippi river.
Gator or croc?
There are two main physical differences between alligators and crocodiles. The first one is that from the top, an alligator’s snout is rounded at the end, and a crocodile’s snout, while not pointed, is not as round as an alligator’s. The second difference is that when an alligator’s mouth is closed, only top teeth show as opposed to top and bottom teeth for an crocodile. Alligators also only live in the southeastern United States and a small portion of China, and crocodiles only overlap this range at the southern tip of Florida.
The average size for an adult male American alligator is about eleven feet (3.4 m), while females normally reach only about eight feet (2.6 m). The largest males recorded grew around sixteen and a half feet (5 m) long and weighed close to 1,000 pounds (454 kg). There have been reports of giant American alligators reaching 19.8 feet (6 m) long, but these have not been verified.
As with most large reptiles, the American alligator is a carnivore. Due to its large size compared to all other animals in its habitat, this animal is capable of attacking and eating almost every animal it comes in contact with. Young American alligators start by feeding on insects and freshwater shrimp. As they get older, they gradually move on to fish, frogs, birds, snakes, and even large mammals. Although they occasionally eat humans, these reptiles are not as much of a “man-eater” as they are sometimes thought to be.
Sometimes, due to genetics, an albino American alligator is born. These animals, which are made white by the lack of melanin (a skin pigment), are extremely rare. In the wild, their survival period is only about twenty-four hours due to their extreme sensitivity to UV radiation. One of these animals is shown below in the picture.
American alligators, along with some crocodiles, are the first known reptiles to use tools. As recently as November of 2013, these animals were spotted lying below water bird colonies. They were seen mostly submerged and having sticks on their head. These sticks were used as bait. Birds making a new nest or repairs to an old one would see the sticks easily available, fly down to grab them, and then become the alligator’s next meal.
American alligators have many forms of communication, some vocal and some non-vocal. Vocal communication includes bellows:
Doesn’t the hiss sound almost like Darth Vader breathing? While courting, these animals also emit sounds called “chumpfs” which sound like a mix between a cough and a purr.
In order to attract females, male American alligators will slap their head against the water to make loud splashes, showing their strength. Another non-verbal noise is a jawclap which is made when the alligator opens his jaw and then claps in quickly shut right at water level. Both of these noises are used to communicate territory boundaries. This last one somewhat resembles the beak claps made by shoebills.
Mating and eggs
At the length of six feet (1.8 meters), American alligators start mating during the mating season which lasts from April to June. They reach this length at ten to twelve years of age. Mating occurs in the water and soon afterwards the female lays in between twenty-five and sixty eggs in a mound of vegetation. She then guards them during the 65 day gestation period. Like most reptiles, the temperature at which the eggs are incubated affects whether the young are male or female. The higher the temperature, the more males there will be and the lower the temperature, the more females there will be. In between 86 and 93 degrees Fahrenheit (30-34 Celsius) there will be a mix of male and female alligators.
The young hatch simultaneously and, by using high-pitched squeaks, signal the mother to help them. The mother then comes and carefully picks up the young alligators in her mouth and transports them to shallow water. During the next one to two years, she stays with the young, guarding them from predators. Despite this protection, eighty percent of young American alligators become prey to other animals such as bobcats, otters, snakes, large fish, and other alligators. For the first few years of life, these young animals grow about one foot (30 cm) each year. After a young alligator reaches the four foot (1.2 meter) mark, it is safe from predators except for humans and large alligators. These amazing alligators can live for up to 50 years in the wild.
In the 1950’s, the American alligator was an endangered species due to people hunting for their skin. Hunting American alligators and the trade of alligator skin was made illegal, and now the IUCN Red List classifies these animals as “Least concern.” The main threats to American alligators today are habitat loss and pollution.
Don’t forget to scroll down and guess what the next animal is!
- Smithsonian Handbooks Reptiles and Amphibians. Mark O’Shea and Tim Halliday, Smithsonian Institution, ISBN: 978-0-7566-6009-3
- Animals of the world. Tom Jackson, ISBN: 978-1780191089
- Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide. David Burnie and Don E. Wilson, Smithsonian Institution, ISBN: 978-0-7566-6002-4
- American Alligator – Public domain
- American Alligator range – Public domain
- Albino American Alligator – BrokenSphere
- American Alligator bellow – Borisblue
- American Alligator hiss – Public domain
- Mystery animal – Steve