Alligator

The word “alligator” sprung from the Spanish word “El Lagarto,” meaning “the lizard.” Alligator is a crocodilian related to the American Caimans family of Alligatoridae. Alligators earliest appearance was during the “Oligocene epoch” about 37 million years ago.

The largest ever recorded alligator was found on Marsh island of Louisiana, measuring 19 ft and 2 inches. The alligator’s two extant species are the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) and the Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis).

The American alligator sometimes referred to as a “gator or common alligator”, was first classified in 1807 as “Cocodilus mississipiensis” by French Zoologist François Marie Daudinas.

It is the larger one of the living alligator species native to the Southeastern United States, with a small population in Mexico.

The American alligator’s visibility is a rare success story of an endangered animal, not only saved from extinction but now thriving.

Additionally, The Chinese alligator is a much smaller, little – known reptile found in the Yangtze River, People’s republic of China.

Table of Contents

Scientific classification

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassReptilia
OrderCrocodilia
FamilyAlligatoridae
SubfamilyAlligatorinae
GenusAlligator
Scientific nameAlligator mississippiensis

Description

The alligator is generally known to share a physical resemblance with the crocodile. It is primarily a large aquatic reptile with black, dark or olive-brown coloured eyes, ears, nostrils and a powerful tail. It differs from the crocodile through the form of its jaw and teeth.

Alligators possess a broad, U-shaped head, while that of the Crocodile is V-shaped. A large alligator’s eyes will glow red in the dark when light is shone on it, while those of the smaller one will glow green.

The American alligator ranges in physique from long and slender to short and robust with different skin colour shades. It may be olive, brown, grey or black with some inhibiting melanin gene, making them albino (rare cases).

An adult male American alligator can grow up within a length range of 11.2 ft to 15.1 ft. Their weight varies depending on their growth rate, age, health, climate conditions and diet.

They have been studied to weigh nearly half a ton or 454 kilograms generally. Female alligators are usually smaller, and they typically grow within a length range of 8.5 ft to 9.8 ft.

The Chinese alligator is the smaller one of both species, with black skin colour and yellowish markings, rarely exceeding a body length of 7 ft. Its weight is considerably lesser, with males rarely weighing over 45 kilograms.

Lack of hunting behaviour and other stressors have been recorded to be the reasons why alligators in captivity outweigh wild alligators, hence the difference in body weight between both species.

Distribution

Alligators are only endemic to the United States, Mexico and China. The American Alligator can be found in Southeastern part of United States (Florida and Louisana),  the Great dismal swamp in Virginia, Coastal South and North Carolina, Everglades National park in Florida, East Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tamaulipas.

The Chinese alligators dominate the Yangtze River region, close to the Pacific Ocean in Eastern China.

Habitat

Over a million alligators are said to inhabit Florida and Louisiana, with Louisiana having a larger population.

Generally, alligators are less tolerant to saltwater than crocodiles. During spring and summer seasons, males alligator nests in open lake water, while females use both swampy ( to construct their nests and lay their eggs ) and open water areas.

They live underneath banks or clumps during the winter season.

The American alligator inhabits freshwater environments such as slow-moving rivers, ponds, lakes, swamps, wetlands and marshes.

They also inhabit brackish waters and have been considered an essential specie in maintaining ecological diversity in wetlands. Their constructed alligator hole has helped to increase plant diversity and provide habitat for other animals.

The Chinese alligator is traditionally known to live more in zoos and the wild. With only a few dozen left, they have been termed “extremely endangered”.

They are usually found in rivers, lakes, ponds and swamps, but are now confined mostly to ditches on agricultural lands.

Habits

Alligators are social creatures; they are also solitary and territorial. They are often seen staying in groups called congregations, usually led by the largest of both genders.

These groups are known to be seen, either basking in the sun (when it’s cold)  or taking a swim ( when it’s hot). They are predominantly more active in water than on land.

Water is where they hunt mostly and can swim very quickly with the help of their tail. Alligators dig burrows to rest and avoid extreme weather. American alligators can cover a distance of 20 mph in their natural habitat.

They are excellent swimmers; they can dive, rise and roll in the water just like fishes. They bellow to declare territory and use infrasounds to locate or attract a suitable female mate.

The two forms of land locomotion by an alligator is termed “Low and High walk”. On land, an American alligator moves either by sprawling or walking and can run as fast as 17.7 km/h.

Sprawling is a forward movement with the belly in contact with the ground and is used to transition to “high walk” or slither over a wet substrate into water.

The high walk is an up-on-four -limbs forward motion used for overland travel with the belly lifted off the ground. They hiss to lay off predators and usually feast on their prey through biting or an attack called “Death roll”.

Diet

The alligator is a carnivore by nature and considerably an apex predator. They are also termed “opportunist feeders” because they feed on anything. The type of food eaten by alligators depends upon their age and size.

When they are young (hatchlings)  and tender, hungry gator feed mostly on invertebrates such as fishes, insects, snails, crustaceans and worms.

At maturity, they eat larger prey items such as gar, turtle, various mammals (coypu, muskrat, birds, and mollusks), other reptiles and in rare cases humans.

In some cases, larger alligators feed on smaller alligators. They can also ambush dogs, panthers, black deers, cattle, razorbacks and can consume carrion if they are sufficiently hungry.

The gastroliths in their stomach help with grinding of food substances, while they depend on gizzard stone for mastication.

In 2013, American alligators and other crocodilians were also reported to eat fruit. Such behaviour has been witnessed and documented from stomach contents.

The American alligators eat fruit like wild grapes, elderberries, and citrus fruits directly from the trees.

Reproduction and Breeding

The cold-blooded reptile is a seasonal breeder. Their mating season is usually in the spring when the water is warm.

They typically gather in large numbers for group courtship, termed as “water dances”. According to a study by Ferguson and Joanne in 1982, the sex of the young depends on the temperature of egg incubation.

The temperature of 30°c produces females, while the temperature of 34°c produces males. Both the American and Chinese alligators are capable of laying 10 to 50 white eggs (similarly to a goose egg) simultaneously.

Females have only one mate each season, while males can fertilize several females in one mating season. The females exhibit parental behaviour more than males, which usually involves a high level of sacrifice.

Their parental responsibilities include:

  • Building of nests
  • Laying eggs
  • Covering the nest with vegetation
  • Guarding the nest throughout the 2-month incubation period
  • Opening buried nest of vegetation to assist in hatching
  • Transporting hatchling to water and protecting baby alligator

The young of an alligator is called a hatchling. The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology stated that Chinese alligator hatchlings weigh only around 1.05 ounces (30 grams) and are approximately 8.3 inches (21 centimetres) long.

American hatchlings are about 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) long.

The young are tiny replicas of adult alligators, with a series of yellow bands around their bodies that serve as a camouflage. They remain near their mother for at least two or three months until they can hunt for their food and start their family.

Conservation status and life span

Historically, hunting activities had a significant effect on alligators’ population, which led to both species being enlisted as endangered.

Subsequent conservation efforts have allowed their numbers to increase, removing American alligator from the endangered specie status since 1987. However, the Chinese alligator is still considered as an endangered specie to date.

The American alligator population is currently considered “low risk and least concern” making the reptile the official state reptile of Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

No average life span for an alligator has been measured, but studies have shown that “an alligator is capable of surviving for 30 to 50 years in the wild”.

Also, no record of specimen living beyond 70 years in captivity, as one of the oldest recorded alligator lived in Saturn.

Human relationship

Alligators, unlike crocodiles, do not immediately consider humans as prey upon encounter. They are generally wary of humans and tend to swim away when one approaches.

The overconfidence of some humans to enter the animal’s habitat sprung up aggression and death records.

The feeding process carried out by humans towards the alligator has helped loosen their fright for humans. They now approach humans comfortably without hurting them, rather than swim away like they naturally do.

Human deaths caused by alligators have increased over the years. While there were only nine fatal attacks between 1970 and 2000 in the United States, eleven more occurred in five years between 2001 and 2006 alone.

Alligators are commercially raised for their meat and skin. When tanned, it is used to manufacture luggage, handbags, shoes, belts and other leather items while their youngs are being sold in large numbers as pets.

Their most crucial economic benefit to humans may be Coypu and Muskrat’s control, aside them being used for farming and entertainment (Wrestling).

Sources;

Alligator
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