AppearanceThe American alligator has a large, slightly rounded body, with thick limbs, a broad head, and a very powerful tail. Adult Alligators generally have dark gray or nearly black color. They may at times appear to be lighter based on detritus or algae in the water covering their skin. Juvenile alligators have a striped pattern for camouflage that they lose as they mature. Averaging about 9.5 in in length when newly hatched, alligators reach sexual maturity when they measure about 5–7 ft. Adult male alligators average 11.2 ft in length, while adult females average 8.2 to 9.8 ft. Average adult body weights are reported from 270 to 800 lb, with a few exceptionally large and old males exceeding 14 ft and 1,000 pounds. One American Alligator reached a length of 19 feet 2 inches and 2,200 lb, which made it not only the largest alligator ever recorded, but also among the largest crocodilians on record. The tail, which accounts for half of the alligator's total length, is primarily used for aquatic propulsion. The tail can also be used as a weapon of defense when an alligator feels threatened. Alligators travel very quickly in water and while they are generally slow-moving on land, alligators can lunge short distances very quickly. They have five claws on each front foot and four on each rear foot. American Alligators have the strongest laboratory measured bite of any living animal, measured at up to 9,452 newtons in laboratory conditions. It should be noted that this experiment has not been replicated in any other crocodilians.
Some alligators are missing an inhibited gene for melanin, which makes them albino. These alligators are extremely rare and almost impossible to find in the wild. They could survive only in captivity. Like all albino animals, they are very vulnerable to the sun and predators.
American Alligators can remain underwater for several hours if not actively swimming or hunting; they do this by rerouting blood to reduce circulation to the lungs, and thus the need for oxygen.
NamingHistorically, alligators were depleted from many parts of their range as a result of market hunting and loss of habitat, and 30 years ago many people believed their population would never recover. In 1967, the alligator was listed as an endangered species, meaning it was considered in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
A combined effort by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies in the South, and the creation of large, commercial alligator farms were instrumental in aiding the American alligator's recovery. The Endangered Species Act outlawed alligator hunting, allowing the species to rebound in numbers in many areas where it had been depleted. As the alligator began to make a comeback, states established alligator population monitoring programs and used this information to ensure alligator numbers continued to increase. In 1987, the Fish and Wildlife Service pronounced the American alligator fully recovered and consequently removed the animal from the list of endangered species. The Fish and Wildlife Service still regulates the legal trade in alligator skins and products made from them.
Recently, a population of non-native Burmese Pythons has become established in Everglades National Park. While there have been observed events of predation by Burmese pythons on alligators and vice versa, there is currently no evidence of a net negative effect on alligator populations.
DistributionAmerican alligators are mostly found in the Southeastern United States, from Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina south to Everglades National Park in Florida and west to the southern tip of Texas. They are found in the U.S. states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. Florida and Louisiana currently have the largest population of alligators. Florida has an estimated population of 1 to 1.5 million while Louisiana has an estimated population of 1.5 million.
HabitatAlthough primarily freshwater animals, alligators will occasionally venture into brackish water.
Alligators live in wetlands and this is the vital habitat that holds the key to their continued long-term survival. Alligators depend on the wetlands, and in some ways the wetlands depend on them. As apex predators, they help control the population of rodents and other animals that might overtax the marshland vegetation.
American alligators are less prone to cold than American crocodiles. Unlike the American crocodile, which would immediately succumb to the cold and drown in water of 45 °F, an alligator can survive in such temperatures for some time without any signs of evident discomfort. It is thought that this adaptiveness is the reason why American alligators spread farther north than the American crocodile. In fact, the American alligator is found farther from the equator and is more equipped to deal with cooler conditions than any other crocodilian.
In Florida, alligators face ambient temperature patterns unlike elsewhere in their range. The consistently high temperatures lead to increased metabolic cost. Alligators in the Everglades have reduced length to weight ratio, reduced total length, and delayed onset of sexual maturity compared with other parts of their range. The reason for this poor condition is currently suspected to be a combination of low food availability and sustained high temperatures.
ReproductionThe breeding season begins in the spring. Although alligators have no vocal cords, males bellow loudly to attract mates and warn off other males during this time by sucking air into their lungs and blowing it out in intermittent, deep-toned roars. Male alligators are also known to use infrasound during their mating behavior, as one of their routines is to engage in bellowing in infrasound while their head and tail are above the water, with their midsection very slightly submerged, making the surface of the water that is directly over their back literally "sprinkle" from their infrasound bellowing, in a so-called "water dance". Recently it was discovered that on spring nights alligators gather in large numbers for group courtship, the so-called "alligator dances".
The female builds a nest of vegetation, sticks, leaves, and mud in a sheltered spot in or near the water. After she lays her 20 to 50 white, goose egg-sized eggs, she covers them under more vegetation, which, like mulch, heats as it decays, helping to keep the eggs warm. This differs from Nile crocodiles who lay their eggs in pits.
The temperature at which alligator eggs develop determines their sex. Those eggs which are hatched in temperatures ranging from 90 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit become males, while those in temperatures from 82 to 86 °F become female. Intermediate temperature ranges have proven to yield a mix of both male and females. The female will remain near the nest throughout the 65-day incubation period, protecting the nest from intruders. When the young begin to hatch they emit a high-pitched croaking noise, and the mother quickly digs them out.
The young are tiny replicas of adult alligators with a series of yellow bands around their bodies. They find their way to water after hatching. For several days they continue to live on yolk masses within their stomachs. The baby spends about five months with the mother before leaving her. Snapping turtles, large snakes, raccoons, largemouth bass, American black bears, large raptorial birds such as great horned owls and bald eagles and even larger alligators prey upon young alligators. The adult alligator may grow up to prey upon many of the same species.
Alligators reach breeding maturity at about 6 to 10 years of age, at which time they are about 6 to 7 feet long. From then on, growth continues at a slower rate. The oldest males may grow to be 16 feet long and weigh up to 1,200 pounds during a lifespan of 30 or more years. A recent study by scientists from the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory in South Carolina reveals that up to 70 percent of "A. mississippiensis" females chose to remain with their partner, often for many years.
FoodAlligators eat fish, birds, turtles, snakes, mammals, and amphibians. Hatchlings diet on invertebrates, insects, larvae, snails, spiders, worms, and other small prey. They will also eat small fish at any opportunity. As they grow, they gradually move on to larger fish, mollusks, frogs and small mammals like rats, and mice. Some adult alligators take a larger variety of prey ranging from a snake or turtle to a bird and moderate sized mammals like a raccoon or deer.
Once an alligator reaches adulthood, any animal living in the water or coming to the water to drink is potential prey. Adult alligators will eat wild boars, deer, dogs of all sizes, livestock including cattle and sheep, and are often known to kill and eat smaller alligators. In rare instances, large male alligators have been known to prey on the Florida panther and American black bear, making the American alligator the apex predator throughout its distribution. The American alligator is known as King of the Everglades, although the American crocodile, which shares parts of the Everglades with the alligator, is capable of growing larger, mostly in warmer regions like Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
Although fish and other prey taken in the water or at the water edge form the major part of alligator's diet, adult alligators also spend considerable time hunting on land, up to 50 m from water, ambushing terrestrial animals on trailsides and road shoulders on warm nights.
The gizzards of alligators often contain gastroliths. The function of these stones is to grind up food in the stomach and help with digestion. This is important because gators swallow their food whole. These gastroliths are also used in buoyancy control.
In 2005, the bite force of a 12-foot, 450-pound alligator was measured to be 2209 pounds-force by Greg Ericson.
American alligators cruise through water at just over 1 mph; in pursuit of prey they can swim much faster over short distances.
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