An Eight Million Year Old Living Species – The American Alligator

Alligators are a symbol of wildlife and untouched lands in the Southeastern United States.

We are all connected in the intricate web of life on planet Earth. 

During an excursion into Big Cypress Swamp and Everglades National Park in southern Florida I caught a small glimpse of the biodiversity there. Big Cypress Swamp is the only subtropical ecosystem in the continental United States. The environment is host to thousands of species. The American Alligator is one of them.

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  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Crocodylia
  • Family: Alligatoridae
  • Genus & Species: Alligator Mississippiensis

Alligators are the largest reptiles in America. The average size of a female is 8.2 feet long and the male which is larger, averages 11.2 feet. Exceptionally large alligators can weigh nearly one half ton – 1,000 pounds. These reptiles live in fresh water and inhabit slow moving rivers, swamps, marshes and lakes. Found only in the southern United States, primarily Louisiana and Florida, they range from North Carolina and Florida on the eastern boundary and as far west as the Rio Grande in Texas. Alligators do not travel far from the area they are born. Large adults are territorial and stay in a somewhat confined home range.

The American Alligator is one of  two alligator species that exist in the world. The other is the smaller Chinese Alligator. Both of these large reptiles evolved from ancient crocodiles that existed 84 million years ago. Researchers studying the fossil record of an alligator skull found in Marion County, Florida believe the American Alligator to be unchanged for the past 8 million years.

These fearsome creatures that survived the apocalyptic event that saw dinosaurs go extinct are relatively similar to their ancient predecessors. They retain a strong “armoured” body, muscular  flat tail and powerful jaws. Although alligators appear cumbersome they are actually quite swift and agile. They are good swimmers and on land can attain speeds of 35 mph for short distances. The short powerful front legs have five toes and the back leg has four toes. These are used to build nests when breeding and create burrows during dry seasons. The most fearful aspect of an alligators appearance is the long extended jaw and row of dagger like teeth. The powerful jaw has 74 to 80 teeth that allows the the alligator to rip and tear apart it’s prey. Over time these teeth wear down and are replaced. An alligator may go through 3,000 teeth in a lifetime. At the end of the long snout are the nostrils which are upturned to facilitate breathing when mostly submerged while swimming.

The armoured body consists of bony plates embedded across the back that are called osteoderms or scutes which are virtually impenetrable. It is quite amazing that these adaptive reptiles that have survived for millions of years have a brain that weighs less than half an ounce.

American Alligators are carnivorous. Their diet consists of fish, snails, invertebrates, birds, turtles, frogs and mammals. Alligators are an apex predator and a keystone of ecological health in swamps and marshes.

Alligators are ectothermic (cold blooded) and regulate body temperature by the sun, moving into warmer or cooler air or water temperature. They are most active in temperatures of 82 to 92 degrees and stop feeding when the ambient temperature is below 70 degrees. Alligators do not hibernate in cold weather but do go dormant when temperatures are less than 55.

American Alligators reach maturity when about six feet long which is in ten to twelve years of age. In April reproduction courtship begins, noted by the roaring of bulls to attract females and pronounce dominance of their territory. Breeding happens at night in shallow waters during May. At this time the female builds a nest of vegetation ten feet in diameter and two to three feet in height. Egg laying happens in May or early June when the female deposits 35 to 50 eggs in the nest and covers them with more vegetation. There is a 65 day incubation period that lasts towards the end of August. Temperatures inside the nest determine sex of the offspring. A temperature of 87.8 or below produces females, at 89.6 degrees 75% will be males and at 90.5 degrees mostly females develop. Inside the egg, the young start to emit a high pitched sound signalling the mother to remove the vegetative blanket covering the eggs. When the baby hatchlings emerge they are 6 to 8 inches long.

Crocodilians are the only order of reptiles that offer maternal care. The mother carries eight to ten hatchlings in her mouth down to the water by pulling her tongue down creating a pouch. At the water she opens her mouth and shakes her head gently side to side encouraging the young to swim out. Once in the water the young congregate in small groups called pods. Eighty percent will fall victim to predators, including birds, racoons, bobcats, otters, snakes, large bass and larger alligators. Those that survive can have a lifespan of fifty years in the wild.

During particularly dry seasons or drought when some waterways dry up, alligators will excavate a depression as large as sixty five feet along the waterway. When water levels return to normal the alligator vacates the burrow and other animals quickly move in. ” Gator Holes” provide critical sustenance for fish, insects, snakes, turtles, birds and other wildlife that inhabit these ecosystems.

Following WW II there was great concern across the Southern Gulf states about large scale commercial overhunting. The alligator population reached its lowest points in the 1950s and early 1960s. Hunting was essentially stopped by 1969. Louisiana and Florida banned hunting and trapping in 1962 followed by Texas in 1969. They did this by passing an amendment to the Lacey Act which is a Federal law that prohibits interstate commerce of wildlife. These actions brought attention to and helped to promote passage of the Endangered Species Act by Congress in 1973. Politicians in Washington have credited the Endangered Species Act with the recovery of the American Alligator as a success story. In fact at the time of the Act, the alligator population was counted at 734,000 and growing. This was accomplished by the efforts of the Departments of Wildlife and Fisheries in Louisiana and Florida a decade earlier. Today the alligator population in Florida stands at 1.3 million. In 1987 the Endangered Species Act reclassified alligators from endangered to threatened. Since 1988 the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission has offered limited recreational hunting and strictly controlled commercial trapping. Conservation methods now in place meet the three tenets of sustainability: economic, social and environmental concerns. These methods are useful in managing the population, provide meat for local residents and tanned hides to be used in valuable leather products.

The recovery of the American Alligator population from possible extinction is indeed a success story. However; this species, Alligator Mississippiensis is still threatened, primarily from destruction and degradation of wetland habitat by humans. Their loss would be a blow to biodiversity and to the ecosystem, affecting all levels of the food chain.

Remember this: We are all connected in this intricate web of life on planet Earth.

Happy Trails,

Dohn

About earthstonestation

promoting environmental education, protecting all species and preserving the wild places with art, music and storytelling.
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