Alligator, American

American Alligator at the LA Zoo Photo Credit Charlie Morey

Scientific Name: Alligator mississippiensis

Alligators may live more than 40 years.

Alligators spend much of the day laying in the sun on the banks of rivers, lakes, or other bodies of water, often hiding in the vegetation. They are inactive during the winter months, when they retreat to water-filled “gator holes” they have dug. Entrances to some of these holes are underwater.

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The female alligator lays her eggs on land in a mounded nest that she makes from mud and vegetation. The heat from rotting vegetation in the nest helps the eggs to develop, and the eggs hatch in about 70 to 90 days. The hatchlings have a tooth-like point on the tip of their snouts, which they use to break through the shell of the egg. When hatched, they are about eight inches long and will grow one foot per year for the first six years. The mother will protect her young from danger for up to three years.

This animal is classified as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The North American alligator was almost hunted to extinction in the first part of the 20th century. Hunters killed them for their skins, which were used to make belts, purses, wallets, and shoes. Today, the United States government protects this alligator, and while they are still being hunted, all hunting is controlled by permit. Once listed as an endangered species, the American alligator populations are now increasing in some areas.

The American alligator is found in fresh and slightly salty waters of coastal marshes, swamps, rivers, lakes, and man-made canals in the southeastern United States, from eastern Texas, east through Louisiana, southern Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, and north into the Carolina coastal regions, and south to the tip of Florida. Their name comes from early Spanish explorers of North America, who called them “el lagarto,” Spanish for “the lizard.”

Alligators are carnivorous. They eat almost anything found in the water, such as crabs, crayfish, fish, frogs, snakes, birds, and small mammals such as raccoons, nutria, and muskrats. Large adult alligators that live near people may also kill dogs and cattle that get too close to the water. They will also eat carrion. Even though alligators have many large teeth, they do not chew their prey, but swallow it whole. Larger prey is grabbed and held with the teeth, and the alligator will twist and turn its body in order to tear the flesh into pieces that can be swallowed.

Adult males range from 10 to 16 feet long. Females are considerably smaller. Eyes, ears, and nostrils are located on top of the head, so that the alligator is able to see, hear, and breathe while almost totally submerged in the water. Special adaptations in the alligator’s mouth allow it to open its jaws underwater to catch prey without getting water into its lungs and possibly drowning. These alligators have webbed feet—skin between their toes—that help them in the water. But when swimming, it is the powerful tail that’s used to move through the water, with the legs serving as a rudder. The muscular tail is also a powerful weapon of defense.

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