We welcome back Angie to this week’s podcast covering the American Alligator. This species is near and dear to both of us as the “Gator” is the official mascot for the University of Florida. A tradition is any child born in Gainesville, Florida is known as a “Gator Baby.” So this week, we dedicate this episode to our kids, who all are Gator babies!
The Alligator is a massive apex predator native to North America. As a reptile, the Alligator has survived for tens of millions of years and was almost at risk of extinction in the mid 20th century. With focused conservation they have rebounded and are another conservation success story. Today there are over 5 million Alligators living in the United States alongside humans. They are a critical predator to our natural water ways and exhibit some incredible behaviors. We know you will enjoy learning about this special reptile.
Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) are classified as reptiles, which are some of the oldest animals on our planet. In fact, reptiles date back over 315 million years. A time even before the first dinosaurs emerged. Even we as humans can date our origins back to reptiles. While dinosaurs are once thought to be more related to reptiles, they are in fact closer to birds. The very first reptile is thought to resemble a modern lizard and was named Hylonomus lyelli.
Alligators belong to the Crocodilia class. They first emerged nearly 245 million years ago. Today’s crocodiles emerged around 90 million years ago, with ancient alligators emerging in the Americas around 80 million years ago. Today’s modern Alligators have not changed much over the last 30 million years and look pretty much the exact same as they did 8 million years ago. These are some ancient animals!
Interestingly there are two species of Alligator. The American Alligator and the lesser known Chinese Alligator (Alligator sinensis). The American Alligator lives in the Southern United States, while the Chinese Alligators are now located in a small range of West Central China.
Alligators can live up to around 50 years in the wild. Currently in the Belgrade Zoo there is an American Alligator that is thought to be at least 86 years old. While on land alligators can run about 11 mph (18 kph), in the water is where they thrive. Alligators can swim about 20 mph (32 kph), which is much faster than any human (fastest human in water is 6 mph (10kph)).
Alligators can get over 11 feet long (3.5 meters) and weigh over 1000 lbs. (450 kg). Males are larger than females, with both growing throughout their lives.
Compared to crocodiles, alligators are bit more cold tolerant. While both are cold blooded, alligators can survive better in cold temperatures. They can go into “brumation” where they slow down their bodies metabolism and body processes. When hot, alligators can be seen with their mouths open, almost like a dog panting, helping them to cool off.
Alligators are ambush predators and mainly hunt at night. Usually their diets are limited by size. They will lie in wait and then when prey gets near them, they strike. They either swallow their prey whole, or they will stash it under water if it is too large, allowing their prey to decay making it easier to eat. Diets include small deer, hogs, frogs, fish, birds, snakes, and other small creatures. Caution is always advised for anybody near bodies of water where alligators live. While human deaths are less than 1 per year, they do occur.
Alligators in the Americas were heading to extinction. However, after being placed on the USA Endangered Species list, they have rebounded. Today, there are an estimated 5 million American Alligators.
However, the Chinese Alligator is Critically Endangered with less than 300 left in the world.