American Alligator, Wildlife Species Information:
American alligator, (Alligator mississippiensis)
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The American alligator is a member of the crocodile family, whose members
are living fossils from the Age of Reptiles, having survived on earth for
200 million years. However, the alligator can be distinguished from the
crocodile by its head shape and color. The crocodile has a narrower snout,
and unlike the alligator, has teeth in the lower jaw which are visible even
when its mouth is shut. In addition, adult alligators are black, while
crocodiles are brownish in color.
Today, alligators are found throughout the Southeast, from the Carolinas to
Texas and north to Arkansas. As during the Reptile Age, today alligators
live in wetlands, and it is this vital habitat that holds the key to their
continued long-term survival. Alligators depend on the wetlands -- and in
some ways the wetlands depend on them. As predators at the top of the food
chain, they help control numbers of rodents and other animals that fight
and overtax the marshland vegetation.
The alligator has a large, slightly rounded body, with thick limbs, a
broad head, and a very powerful tail which it uses to propel itself through
water. The tail accounts for half the alligator´s length. While alligators
move very quickly in water, they are generally slow-moving on land, although
they can be quick for short distances.
Alligators will eat just about anything, but primarily consume fish,
turtles, and snails. Small animals that come to the water´s edge to
drink make easy prey for the voracious alligator. Young alligators mostly
feed on insects, crustaceans, snails, and fish.
The alligator´s greatest value to the marsh and the other animals
within it are the "gator holes" that many adults create and
expand on over a period of years. An alligator uses its mouth and claws to
uproot vegetation to clear out a space; then, shoving with its body and
slashing with its powerful tail, it wallows out a depression that stays full
of water in the wet season and holds water after the rains stop. During
the dry season, and particularly during extended droughts, gator holes provide
vital water for fish, insects, crustaceans, snakes, turtles, birds, and other
animals in addition to the alligator itself
Sometimes, the alligator may expand its gator hole by digging beneath an
overhanging bank to create a hidden den. After tunneling as far as 20 feet,
it enlarges the end, making a chamber with a ceiling high enough above water
level to permit breathing. This is not the alligator´s nest but merely
a way for the reptile to survive the dry season and winters.
The breeding season begins in the spring. Although alligators have no
vocal cords, males bellow loudly to attract mates and warn off other males
during this time by sucking air into their lungs and blowing it out in
intermittent, deep-toned roars.
The female builds a nest of vegetation, sticks, leaves, and mud in a
sheltered spot in or near the water. After she lays her 20 to 50 white,
goose-egg-sized eggs, she covers them under more vegetation, which, like
mulch, heats as it decays, helping to keep the eggs warm. She remains near
the nest throughout the 65 day incubation period, protecting the nest from
intruders. When the young begin to hatch they emit a high-pitched croaking
noise, and the female quickly digs them out.
The young, which are tiny replicas of adult alligators with a series of
yellow bands around their bodies, then find their way to water. For several
days they continue to live on yolk masses within their bellies.
Alligators reach breeding maturity at about 8 to 13 years of age, at which
time they are about 6 to 7 feet long. From then on, growth continues at a
slower rate. Old males may grow to be 14 feet long and weigh up to 1,000
pounds during a lifespan of 30 or more years.
Historically, alligators were depleted from many parts of their range
as a result of market hunting and loss of habitat, and 30 years ago many
people believed this unique reptile would never recover. In 1967, the
alligator was listed as an endangered species, meaning it was considered an
endangered species in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant
portion of its range.
But a combined effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state
wildlife agencies in the South saved these unique animals. The Endangered
Species Act prohibited alligator hunting, allowing the species to rebound
in numbers in many areas where it had been depleted. As the alligator began
to make a comeback, states established alligator population monitoring programs
and used this information to ensure alligator numbers continued to increase.
In 1987, the Fish and Wildlife Service pronounced the American alligator
fully recovered and consequently removed the animal from the list of endangered
Although the American alligator is secure, some related animals -- such
as several species of crocodiles and caimans -- are still in trouble. For
this reason, the Fish and Wildlife Service still regulates the legal trade
in alligator skins, or products made from them, in order to protect these
endangered animals with skin that is similar in appearance, but illegal in
the commercial market.
The story of the American alligator is one of both drastic decline and
complete recovery, it is a story of state and federal cooperation, and it
is truly one of the prominent success stories of the nation´s endangered