The American Alligator is found all throughout the Southeastern United States in freshwater lakes, rivers, and ponds. They are found as far west as the Rio Grande River in Texas, and as far North as North Carolina in flat, warm areas close to the coast. The American Alligators are most common within the states of Florida and Louisiana, where each state has over 1.25 million Alligators each. Florida and Louisiana are perfect habitats for Alligators with plenty of shallow, freshwater swamps and marshes, lots of rivers and streams, and plenty of warm weather throughout the year. The Everglades National Park, found in South Florida, is a massive natural tropical freshwater wetland that provides the perfect habitat for Alligators year-round.
What are American Alligators?
American Alligators are massive, carnivorous, dark grey reptiles who can grow up to 15ft, and some have been found to be even larger. They are cold-blooded and absolutely need warm weather to thrive. You can spot Alligators frequently sunning on riverbanks to help bring their body temperature up after a long swim. Although they may seem lazy and tend to rest in the sun frequently, Alligators are pure muscle, and have a huge tail for pushing their bodies through the water, and powerful jaws to latch on to prey. Alligators are semi-aquatic and can travel long distances on land or in the water. Their skin is very rough and hard, like armor, with small ridges called scutes. They also have very short legs, and eyes that sit on the top of their head, allowing them to see when most of their body is under water. They also have a second eyelid to help them see best underwater!
Alligators are nocturnal, and although they can be active during the day, they are most active at night. Alligators are very solitary creatures; however, it is common to see Alligators sharing a riverbank to warm up in the sun. Alligators will communicate through hissing, growling, and in mating season, low bellows. Alligators are surprisingly stealthy! Although they can be massive, once in the water they can completely disappear. Their dark color allows them to camouflage with murky dark waters, and when floating at the surface, they only show the very tops of their head and or their backs, making them look like a log! Can you spot the Alligator in both pictures?
Alligators are carnivores, meaning they only eat meat. They are Apex predators at the top of the food chain and tend to hunt during dawn and dusk using their stealthy methods of surprise. When Alligators are fully grown, they will normally hide next to the water’s edge and wait for prey such as wild hogs, birds, racoons, and other creatures to come to drink. They will then jump out of the water and grab the animal with their powerful jaws. Alligators will swallow small prey whole, but when the prey is too large, they will bite off large chunks to eat. Young Alligators will hunt for smaller prey like insects, frogs, lizards, and small turtles. Alligators take a lot of time to digest the food they consume, and large pieces of meat and bone can take up to 100 days! Because of this, Alligators eat only about once a week. They eat even less during cold months.
American Alligators will usually begin to mate around 10 years old, or when they hit 6ft long. Male Alligators will perform to impress females by slapping the water with their tail, lifting their heads, and bellowing, causing water to dance on their backs. Once the Alligators have mated, the males and females do not stay together, although they may mate again the next year, and the females will find a nice place to nest. The female creates a nice nest up and out of the water and will lay between 20-50 eggs. She will protect them fiercely until they hatch, around 65 days later. The hatchlings are only about 6 inches long but are already ready to explore the world around them. Hatchlings start growing immediately, and can grow up to 1ft a year until they reach around 8ft, then their growth will slow to only a few inches per year. The pod of young Alligators will stay with their mother for up to 2 years.
When North America was first colonized by European settlers, the Alligator was heavily hunted for their hides. Alligators were also seen as a nuisance, and their eggs would be destroyed. During the 1940s, an insecticide called DDT was invented and was used widely within the Alligator habitat to kill mosquitos. Unfortunately, the chemical made eggshells soft and destroyed the embryos inside. DDT was been banned in 1972 and hunting Alligators was stopped, however, Alligators still face the threats of overdevelopment on their delicate ecosystems. Many Alligators are forced to cross roads to travel to different waterways, where they can be struck by cars. Other threats include invasive species taking over their homes, like the deadly Boa Constrictor, who is eating all the Alligator’s food sources, as well as eating young Alligators.
During the 1960s due to overhunting, habitat destruction, and DDT, the American Alligator was almost lost to extinction after a 90-million-year existence on earth. However, thanks to major conservation efforts, the American Alligator is one of the first major endangered species success stories! The American Alligator population is currently thriving. However, due to the overdevelopment of wetlands, people encounter Alligators more often than they may like. Of course, Alligators are naturally afraid of humans, and try to avoid them, but since humans have built over their natural habitat, Alligators will still return to developed areas that once used to be swamps and marshes.
How to Help
Although the American Alligators are thriving, they still need our help to save their habitat! Alligators share their homes with many species who need our help. The most important thing you can do is learn about how to support conservation efforts that protect marshes, wetlands, and freshwater ways. Places such as the Florida Everglades need help to preserve the natural ecosystem that supports the creatures living there, as well as the humans.
Learn how to help keep invasive species out of these delicate habitats. If you have a pet that does not belong in the United States, do not let it go in the wild! These animals can destroy ecosystems. Find an exotic animal rescue instead.
It is also important to be careful when you share spaces with Alligators. Remember never to approach, or feed, these creatures. They are wild animals and can hurt you if they feel threatened.