The average size for an adult female is just under 3 meters (9.8 feet), while the adult male usually falls between 4 and 4.5 meters (13 to 14.7 feet). American alligators reaching lengths of 5-6 meters (16 to 20 feet) have been reported in the past, but there have been no recent recordings equaling those lengths. (Britton, 1999; Ross, 1989)
American alligators have very short legs, but they are still able to run very quickly over short distances. The two front legs each have 5 toes, and the two back legs each have four webbed toes. The snout of America alligators is also very important. It is much broader for those animals kept in zoos and parks than for those that live in the wild. This is because of the animal's diet. (Britton, 1999)
Alligators have nostrils at the end of their snouts. This makes it easy for the alligator to breath while it is under water. All it has to do it stick the tip of it's snout into the air. During the winter alligators do this and let the top half of their body to freeze in the ice. (Britton, 1999)
Both males and females have an "armored" body with a muscular flat tail used for swimming. The skin is so tough because of hard bony plates called scutes. Adults have an olive brown or black color with a creamy white underside. Young alligators look different only because they are smaller and have yellow stripes on their tails. American alligators usually have silverish eyes. (Britton, 1999; Ross, 1989)
American alligators are found from the southern Virginia-North Carolina border, along the Atlantic coast to Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico as far west as the Rio Grande in Texas. (Britton, 1999)
American alligators are usually found in freshwater, slow-moving rivers. They are also found in swamps, marshes, and lakes. Unlike some crocodile species, American alligators can only live in salt water for a short time. (Britton, 1999; Ross, 1989)
American alligators are also known to modify their enivironment by creating burrows. These are created using both snout and tail and are used for shelter and hibernation during freezing temperatures. If the water they live in dries out, alligators will swim or walk to other bodies of water, sometimes even taking shelter in swimming pools. (Britton, 1999)
The temperature at which American alligator eggs develop determines their sex. Those eggs which are hatched in temperatures ranging from 90 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit turn out to be male, while those in temperatures from 82 to 86 degrees Fehrenheit end up being female. Intermediate temperature ranges have proven to yield a mix of both male and females. After hatching, alligators can grow rapidly, espectially during the first four years of life, averaging over 1 foot of growth for each year of life. Both sexes reach sexual maturity at around 6 feet in length, however, this occurs earlier in males because they reach this length sooner than females. (; Ross, 1989)
Breeding takes place during the night, in shallow waters. Females usually start the courtship process. Attracting a mate often involves rubbing, touching, blowing bubbles, and making sounds. The sounds made by males create bubbles and ripples in the water. To test eachothers strength, both male and female will often try to push each other under water. (; Ross, 1989)
Alligators are polygynous. That means that each male mates with many females. During breeding season males alligators are very territorial, and they will defend their area against other males by headramming or attacking one another with open jaws. (; Ross, 1989)
Both males and females reach sexual maturity when they are about six feet long, a length attained at about 10 to 12 years, earlier for males than females. Courtship starts in April, with mating occuring in early May. After mating has taken place, the female builds a nest of vegetation. Then, around late June and early July, the female lays 35 to 50 eggs. Some females have been reported as laying up to 88 eggs. The eggs are then covered with the vegetation nest through the 65-day incubation period. (Britton, 1999; )
Around the end of August the young alligators begin to make high pitched noises from inside the eggs. The alligators then break free from their eggs. They are about 6-8 inches long when they are born. Most of these baby alligators will be eaten by predators before they reach one year of age. Mother alligators, though, stay with their young for a few months, and occasionally, a few years. (Britton, 1999; )
Males provide no parental care, and parental care by the female is limited to the first year of life. She is responsible for removing any vegetation covering the nest when her young are ready to hatch, and she will often bring them to water after hatching. During the first year or so she will defend her hatchlings from predators. After the first year, the female leaves her young to tend to new hatchlings of the next breeding season. ()
While there are currently no methods for determining the age of an alligator while still alive, it is known that those in the wild tend to live to between 35 and 50 year, while those in captive generally live longer, around 65-80 years. Factors which can lead to earlier mortality include successful predation early in life and hunting by humans. ()
Young alligators remain in the area where they are hatched and are generally a social species when young. This method of group living is associated with greater protection from predators. Adults do not display such close knit bonds, however, they do tend to associate loosly in social groups. When forced to live in tighter areas as a result of drought, though, these animals tend to ignore each other. (Britton, 1999; Levy, 1991; Ross, 1989)
American alligators undergo periods of dormancy when the weather becomes cold. They may excavate a cave in a waterway and leave a portion of it above water during this time. In areas where water level fluctuates, alligators dig themselves into hollows in the mud, which fill with water. These tunnels are often as long as 65 feet and provide protection during extreme hot or cold weather. (Britton, 1999; Levy, 1991)
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of alligator behavior is its means of locomotion. Besides swimming, American alligators walk, run, and crawl. Most often they will use a "high walk". In this walk alligators keep their legs almost directly beneath them, as opposed to most reptiles which keep their legs to the sides at a diagonal. This "high walk" results in greater elevation, allowing alligators to almost entirely lift their tales up off of the ground. (Ross, 1989)
When alligators wish to increase speed they diagonally opposite limbs move forward almost simultaneously. This allows for faster movement, but it also decreases the animal's stability. When the eqilibrium is lost an alligator begins moving in a new way, moving its limbs out to the sides and crashing onto its chest. In this manner an alligator quickly crawls along. This method of movement is most useful when going down steep shorelines into the water. (Ross, 1989)
Female alligators usually remain in a small area. The males occupy areas greater than two square miles. Both males and females extend their ranges during the courting and breeding season. (Britton, 1999; Levy, 1991)
American alligators are the most vocal of all crocodilians, and communication begins early in life, while alligators are still in eggs. When they are ready to hatch, the young will make high pitched whining noises. Alligators commonly bellow and roar at one another. The bellow is loud and throaty, and can be heard from up to 165 yards away. Alligators also emit sounds called chumpfs. These are cough like purrs made during courting. (; Levy, 1991; Ross, 1989)
Other communication during mating season includes non-verbal forms such as lifting the head out of the water to show honorable intentions, headslapping by males as a sign of aggression to ward off intruders, and perhaps most notably, the virbrations, bubbles, and ripples seen in the water as a result of subaudible noises.
Alligators are basically carnivores, but they eat more than just meat, feeding on anything from sticks to fishing lures to aluminum cans. Mostly, they consume fish, turtles, snakes, and small mammals. When they are young they feed on insects, snails, and small fish. (Britton, 1999; Levy, 1991)
Alligators hunt primarily in the water at night, snapping up small prey and swallowing it whole. Large prey are dragged under water, drowned and then devoured in pieces. Alligators have also been known to hold food in their mouth until it deteriorates enough to swallow. They also have a specialized valve in the throat called a glottis, which allows them to capture prey underwater. ()
With regards to hunting animals on land, alligators are usually considered idle hunters, waiting offshore for unsuspecting prey to drink at the water's edge. With this approach an alligator is likely to grab the drinking animal's head, slowly pulling it underwater until it drowns. In this way alligators exert minimal energy in capturing prey.
The first few years of a hatchlings life are the most dangerous, as anything that can eat a small alligator will. Snakes, wading birds, osprey, raccoons, otters, large bass, garfish, even larger alligators will feed upon young alligators. Once the alligator reaches about 4 feet, its only real predator is man. Extremely thick skin protected by bony plates called scutes prevent harm from most attacks. It is this skin, though, which attracts man to alligators. It is commercially used for the creation of wallets, purses, boots, and other textiles. (; Ross, 1989)
American alligators have proven to be an important part of the environment, and therefor, are considered by many to be a "keystone" species. Not only do they control populations of prey species, they also create peat and "alligator holes" which are invaluable to other species. Red-bellied turtles, for example, incubates its own eggs in old alligator nests. Alligators also are good indicators of environmental factors, such as toxin levels. Increased levels of mercury have been found in recent blood samples. (Britton, 1999)
Since the alligator will feed on almost anything, they pose a threat to humans. In Florida, where there is the greatest alligator population, there were five deaths to alligator attacks from 1973 to 1990. Dogs and other pets are also sometimes killed. (University of Florida)
Alligators are hunted mostly for their skin, but also they are hunted for their meat. Today, there is a multimillion dollar industry in which alligators are raised in captivity for the production of their meat and skin. Also, alligators are a tourist attraction, especially in Florida.
American alligators are listed as threatened by the federal government because they are similar in appearance to American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus). American crocodiles are endangered and the government does not want hunters to confuse the two species. Hunting is allowed in some states, but is is heavily controlled.
Lauren Pajerski (author), Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, University of Michigan.
Benjamin Schechter (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Robin Street (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
Levy, Charles K. 1991. Crocodiles and Alligators. The Apple Press. London. Pages 8-22, 59.
National Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians; 1994.
Britton, A. 1999. "Alligator mississippiensis in the Crocodilians, Natural History and Conservation" (On-line). Accessed 31 March 2000 at http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/cnhc/csp_amis.htm.
Levy, C. 1991. Crocodiles and Alligators.. London: The Apple Press.
Ross, C. 1989. Crocodiles and Alligators. New York, New York: Facts on File, Inc..