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Figure 1. The water has eyes.

I’m going to warn you now that this is a long entry. I grew up around alligators and over time I developed a fascination with this creature that only grows stronger as I age. I’ve walked through the Florida Everglades and was invigorated by the knowledge that without weapons I was not top of the food chain. Alligators remind me of the resilience of nature. They were almost hunted to extinction, but for once humans stopped the madness and now the American alligator flourishes throughout the waters of Florida. But their story isn’t all good news. The alligator lives in many areas that are being drained and turned into residential housing or shopping centers. Baby alligators can be seen smashed on roads, which is a testament that humans have built too much.  So many diverse habitats have been destroyed because ours is a species that doesn’t seem to understand that even though we can satisfy our every want, we shouldn’t. Perhaps we should be happy to drive an extra 15 minutes rather than demand a new road be built that will ultimately lead to massive losses in animal life. Maybe we should pay attention to the shrinking swamps and forests. Read on to find out more about this awesome species that may very well be my favorite creature.

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Figure 2. Note: All of the pictures of the American alligators on this website were taken by me.

How long do they live? There are no true lifespan studies on the American alligator. Why? Because unless you know when the alligator hatched then there’s just no way to really know their age. Plus, not many researchers are signing up to go poking around the water for alligators. Currently, Muja is the oldest known living alligator. Muja lives in the Belgrade zoo in Germany, and he has lived there for 80 years of his life [1]. So, we know he’s 80 years old, but that’s about it since Muja was already an adult when he was taken to a zoo in Serbia, where he lived before being transferred to Belgrade.  Given the right conditions the American alligator can likely live well over 120 years.

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Figure 3. This is Feros Zonbi (Fierce Ghost). He’s a leucistic alligator that can be seen at Gatorland in Orlando, Florida. He earned his name by being awesome. If you’ve never heard of leucism then Google it and fall in love with genetic mutations.

Where are they found? The Southeast United States. Here in Florida alligators are in pretty much all bodies of water, they are even sometimes in brackish water. If there’s water, then there’s an alligator. So, for anyone visiting please keep your hands, feet, dogs, and kids away from the water. Also, don’t feed them for the same reasons you wouldn’t feed a Grizzly bear: they get used to it, and worse they can’t tell the difference between your sandwich and a small child. They generally hunt at night and truly wild alligators stay far away from humans. We scare them just as much as they scare us, but they’re entitled to that fear given we’ve killed far more of them than they have us.  See Figure 3.

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Figure 4. Coincidentally this is also the range of poor education in America.

What do they eat? The American alligator is not only a keystone species, it’s an apex predator. A keystone species is one that other species depend on for a healthy habitat. An apex predator is the top of the food chain and in the case of the alligator it eats what is available. That may be your goofy looking chihuahua, local fish, or even turtles. The alligator can go a year or more without food, so please don’t think you giving it your leftover Popeye’s chicken is doing it any favors.

What do they look like? Like a creature that doesn’t mess around. Unless it’s a mom with her babies and then they look like the cutest animal on the planet. They can grow to be 15 feet long or more and weigh over 1,000 pounds.

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Figure 5. Do not f*ck with this bird.
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Figure 6. Baby alligators have yellow stripes. They also communicate with their mom through chirping noises. If you are near a baby alligator and it chirps – leave quickly.
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Figure 7. American alligator

How do they reproduce? The American alligator reproduces through sexual reproduction. They are an oviparous species, which means they lay eggs. Unlike many reptiles, the alligator takes care of her hatchlings. When the babies are ready to hatch they make chirping noises and the mother uncovers the eggs, assisting in hatching. Once the babies hatch, the mother will pick them up in her mouth and carry them to safety. They then stay with mom for over a year as they mature, some stay with mom for a few years before leaving the comfort of her protection. The alligator reaches sexual maturity between 6 and 12 years of age [2]. Reproductive senescence may occur, since clutch size seems to decrease over time, but actual reproductive senescence studies have not been conducted on the alligator [3].

How do scientists know how old they are? They don’t.  We only have estimates, but that’s tough to trust being that alligators die in the wild from human predation and disease. Most age estimates are made based on size and mark and tag studies.

So what are we lacking? Knowledge of how long they live, how they senesce, and how they accomplish being so awesome.  The nuclear genome for Alligator mississippiensis  is on NCBI, so that’ a great place to start asking and answering questions. One group found that the telomeres of alligators shorten as they grow in body length, so this could be a good method for age estimations [4].

Conservation status: The American alligator is listed as least concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Fun facts: The American alligator is immune to a lot more than we are. Studies have shown that they produce many more antimicrobial peptides than we do and it’s pretty hard to give them a bacterial, protozoa, or viral infection [5].

There’s usually 1 to 3 fatal alligator attacks per year. That’s actually not that many considering there are millions in the wild. How many alligators do humans kill per year? I wonder if the alligators are keeping count?

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Figure 8. There can be so much learned from this creature.

 

  1. In Your Pocket. Belgrade. Belgrade’s Creatures: Muja the Alligator.  https://www.inyourpocket.com/belgrade/Belgrades-Creatures:-Muja-the-Alligator_71978f Accessed 10/8/2016
  2. Animal Diversity.org. American Alligator. http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Alligator_mississippiensis/#lifespan_longevity Accessed 10/8/2016
  3. Castanet, J. “Age estimation and longevity in reptiles.” Gerontology 40.2-4 (1994): 174-192.
  4. Scott, Nicole M., et al. “Telomere length shortens with body length in Alligator mississippiensis.” Southeastern Naturalist 5.4 (2006): 685-692.
  5. Merchant, Mark E., et al. “Broad spectrum antimicrobial activity of leukocyte extracts from the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis).” Veterinary immunology and immunopathology 110.3 (2006): 221-228.