American alligator

American alligator


Florida alligator

American alligator information

The American alligator, Alligator mississippiensis, is one of two living species of alligator. It is endemic to the south-eastern United States, while the other species – the Chinese alligator – lives in Asia. The American alligator is the larger of the two.  

American alligator taxonomy

Kingdom:      Animalia
Phylum:         Chordata
Class:            Reptilia
Order:           Crocodilia
Family:          Alligatoridae
Genus:           Alligator
Species:         Alligatormississippiensis

American alligator conservation status

Alligatormississippiensis is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The estimated wild population exceeds 1,000,000 individuals. Today, the American alligator is widely distributed and numerous throughout most of its range. In some parts of the U.S. alligators are however showing increased levels of mercury which is feared to possibly have long-term effects on their ability to reproduce. More research is needed before anyone can now for sure.

During the first half of the 20th century, hunting and habitat loss made the American alligator vanish from large parts of its range and in 1967 it was listed as an endangered species under the U.S. law that would eventually develop into the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

The Endangered Species Act made alligator hunting illegal and the creation of large, commercial alligator farms decreased the risk of illegal hunting. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service joined forces with state wildlife agencies within the species range to aid the alligator on its path to recovery and in 1987 the American alligator was pronounced fully recovered and removed from the endangered species list.

Today, farming, sustainable harvesting and tourism are important sources of income for local populations. The trade in alligator skins and derived products is regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

American alligator range

The American alligator is native to south-eastern United States. It is present in Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas.

The range of this species stretches from Merchants Millpond State Park in North Carolina down to Everglades National Park in Florida. Westwards, the American alligator can be found all the way to the southern tip of Texas.

American alligator habitat

The American alligator is chiefly found in swamps and marshes but is also present in rivers, lakes and small bodies of water. This species is occasionally encountered in brackish environments around mangrove swamps and can tolerate quite a high level of salinity – but only for short periods of time. Unlike the American crocodile, the American alligator does not have any salt-secreting glands.  

During the dry season, the American alligator uses it snout and tail to excavate so called “alligator holes”, i.e. pools where water remains after it has dried out in the surrounding environment. These holes also function as refuge for other animals during the dry season. If the alligator hole dries out, the alligator will cross land in search of another body of water. If it lives near human settlements it may even decide to move into a swimming pool until the rain returns.

Coping with cool temperatures

Unlike the American crocodile, the American alligator can survive even in areas subjected to comparatively cool winters. To survive the winter, the alligator excavate a burrow in which it stays until spring. Its metabolism is slowed down by the low temperature and the alligator can go without food for months, living off its energy reserves. It can stay in the den throughout the entire winter season if necessary, but can also choose to emerge during brief spells of warmer weather.

In captivity, alligators are known to start loosing their appetite when the temperature drops below 27°C (80°F) and stop feeding altogether below 23°C (73°F).

Alligators doesn’t have to be inside a burrow to survive cold spells and adult alligators can actually endure freezing conditions by submerging themselves almost completely, keeping only the nostrils above the water's edge. This behaviour is known as the “icing response”. When the surface freezes, the upper body of the alligator becomes trapped in the ice. Alligators need to breathe regularly, but alligators trapped completely below ice have been known to survive submerged for over eight hours without taking a breath. The cold water slows down their metabolism down to a level where they do not consume much oxygen.  

American alligator size and appearance

Juvenile alligators have camouflaging bright yellow cross-bands on a black background. As the alligator grows older, the yellow banding will vanish and the overall color will shift to olive, brown, or gray, although some individuals continue to look quite black. Alligators living in tannin rich waters (black water habitats) tend to have darker skin, while alligators in algae rich environments can look quite green.  

The ventral surface (belly) is creamy white, but towards the tail most scales include significant amounts of black. The creamy white color can also be seen around the jaws and on the neck. The eyes are generally olive green.

Wild adult American alligators usually belong to one of two categories: long and thin or short and stocky. The limbs are thick, the head broad and the tail very strong. It accounts for half of the alligator's total length and is a powerful weapon of defense. It will quite easily knock a person down and can even cause bones to break.  

How large is the American alligator?
Adult male American alligators can reach a length of 13-16 feet (4-4.9 meters), but the average size is smaller than this. Adult females average at 8-10 feet (2.5-3 meters). Rumors of American alligators measuring up to 20 feet (6 meters) do surface now and then, but none of them have been verified. The largest scientifically weighed alligators weighed around 1,200 lbs (510 kg).  

How many teeth does an alligator have?
The American alligator has 74-80 teeth.

American alligator feeding and diet

Hatchlings eat small animals such as insects, small fish, frogs, snails, worms, spiders, insects and larvae. As the young grow, it will gradually learn how to overtake larger prey items like frogs, molluscs, midsized fish, and small mammals like rats and mice.  

Adult American alligators are known to feed on fish, amphibians, turtles, snakes, birds, and mammals. They will not hesitate to kill smaller members of their own species, and can also attack domestic animals, e.g. dogs, cats, sheep and cattle. If given the opportunity they will quite happily feast on carrion.   
Large adult alligators are capable of slaying deer and razorbacks, and in rare instances, big male alligators have been known to take down a Florida panther and an American Black Bear.  

American alligator breeding

The female American alligator attains sexual maturity at an average length of 1.8 m (5.9 ft). At this point, she’s usually 8-13 years old.  

Courting commence as temperatures rise in spring, which means that it starts earlier in the year in the southernmost part of the species range and later in the north. During courting, both sexes communicate using sounds, smells, visuals signs and tactile cues. When mating is imminent, the couple will rub each others snouts and backs. The elaborate courtship rituals are believed to be a way for the couple to synchronize sperm production and ovulation.

During early summer, a mound nest will be built from mud and vegetation (usually freshly torn up), usually on a bank or on a mat of vegetation. If the eggs become flooded they will die within 12 hour so it is important for the alligator to place the eggs sufficiently high. A mound nest can be 3.5 ft (1 m) high and twice as wide. A conical depression will be excavated in the top of the mound nest in which 20-50 eggs will be deposited. The eggs are then covered with more vegetation.

The incubation period depends on the temperature and average 65 days. The female will stay near the nest and fiercely protect her offspring. When the hatchlings are ready to emerge they will alert their mother by making high pitched chirps. She will aid her offspring by opening up the nest and carry the young to the water. By pulling her tongue down and hold it like a pouch she can carry up to 10 hatchlings at a time.

Juvenile American alligators live in pods which can be comprised of siblings only or contain individuals from more than one female. The mother will stay near her offspring for quite some time, typically up to a year with occasional females protecting their young for up to 2-3 years. The mother may also share her winter burrow with her offspring.

Just as in many other crocodilians, the temperature at which alligator embryos develop determines their sex. A temperature of from 90–93 °F (32.2–33.8 °C) yields all males, while 82–86 °F (27.7–30 °C) results in all females. Intermediate temperature results in a mix of both sexes.

Juvenile American alligators are preyed on by animals such as fish, birds, racoons and other alligators. Large dominant males often kill and eat smaller alligators.

American alligator facts

American alligator facts # 1
The name alligator is the derived from the Spanish el lagarto which means "the lizard". The name Alligator mississippiensis means “Alligator of the Mississippi”. In the initial description of this species, the name was misspelt mississipiensis (one p) but the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature later agreed to change it to mississippiensis since this is how the name of the river is spelled.

American alligator facts # 2
The American alligator is also known as the Pike-headed alligator and the Mississippi alligator. Colloquially, it is referred to as simply “gator”.

American alligator facts # 3
Large American alligators are capable of killing humans, especially children. When alligators attack it is usually because they feel threatened or perceive the human as a danger to eggs or young, but alligators can also attack because they mistake the human for a much smaller prey. In some areas alligators are fed by humans, a practise that undermines the animal's natural shyness and instead encourages it to aggressively approach humans expecting food.

Between 1970 and 1999, nine fatal alligator attacks were reported in the United States. Between 2001 and 2007, alligators killed 12 people. This increase is believed to be a result of the illegal feeding of alligators.  

Alligator bites should receive prompt medical attention due to the high risk of infection.

Read more American alligator facts

American alligator lifespan

The American alligator can live for 50 – 70 years. Sometimes longer.


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