An alligator is a crocodilian in the genus Alligator of the family Alligatoridae. There are two living alligator species: the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) and the Chinese alligator(Alligator sinensis). In addition, several extinct species of alligator are known from fossil remains. Alligators first appeared during the Oligocene epoch about 37 million years ago.
Alligators are in the same family as other large reptiles like Crocodiles but are native to only two countries, which are the southern USA and China (where the Alligator is now nearly extinct). Alligators tend to be smaller than their Crocodile cousins but have been known to move at speeds of up to 15mph on land making them one of the fastest large reptiles in the world. Despite their size, there are a number of distinct differences between Alligators and Crocodiles as an Alligator’s snout is shorter than that of a Crocodile, and with their mouths shut, an Alligator’s teeth cannot be seen but a Crocodile’s can. Alligators are also commonly known as Gators in their native, southern North American habitats.
Alligators are very large reptiles, with males growing up to 4.5 meters in length. The female Alligator tends to be slightly smaller, with a total body and tail length of between 3 and 3.5 meters. The Chinese Alligator is a much smaller species, almost half the size of a female American Alligator. Alligators have an armour-plated body that varies in colour from yellow, to green, to brown, finally turning almost completely black in old age. The tail of the Alligator is incredibly muscular and is used to propel the animal when it is in the water. Alligators have short, stocky legs with webbing between their toes. This not only helps them when they are swimming but also means that they can negotiate the muddy river banks with ease.
The Alligator is a solitary predator that is actually surprisingly clunky when moving about on land. They tend to be quite slow, moving themselves by either crawling or sliding along the slippery banks on their bellies. They are highly territorial animals that are known to make a variety of noises to represent different things, including the declaration of territory, finding a mate and the young warning their mother that they are in danger. Male Alligators however, do not appear to have such a prominent voice box and make very little noise outside of the breeding season, when they are known to growl and bellow to fend off competing males.
Large male alligators are solitary territorial animals. Smaller alligators can often be found in large numbers close to each other. The largest of the species (both males and females), will defend prime territory; smaller alligators have a higher tolerance of other alligators within a similar size class.
Although alligators have a heavy body and a slow metabolism, they are capable of short bursts of speed, especially in very short lunges. Alligators’ main prey are smaller animals that they can kill and eat with a single bite. Alligators may kill larger prey by grabbing it and dragging it into the water to drown. Alligators consume food that can not be eaten in one bite by allowing it to rot, or by biting and then spinning or convulsing wildly until bite-size chunks are torn off. This is referred to as a “death roll.” Critical to the alligator’s ability to initiate a death roll, the tail must flex to a significant angle relative to its body. An alligator with an immobilized tail cannot perform a death roll.
Most of the muscle in an alligator’s jaw evolved to bite and grip prey. The muscles that close the jaws are exceptionally powerful, but the muscles for opening their jaws are comparatively weak. As a result, an adult human can hold an alligator’s jaws shut barehanded. It is common today to use several wraps of duct tape to prevent an adult alligator from opening its jaws when handled or transported.
Alligators are generally timid towards humans and tend to walk or swim away if one approaches. This has led some people to the practice of approaching alligators and their nests in a manner that may provoke the animals into attacking. In the state of Florida, it is illegal to feed wild alligators at any time. If fed, the alligators will eventually lose their fear of humans and will learn to associate humans with food, thereby becoming a greater danger to people.
Alligator Diet and Prey
The Alligator is generally a solitary predator, but smaller and younger Alligator individuals however, are known to stay together in groups especially when hunting. The Alligator eats fish, small mammals and birds, but the Alligator has also been known to attack much larger animals. Adult alligators have been known to hunt Deer and are well known to kill and eat smaller Alligators. In some cases, larger alligators have been known to hunt the Florida Panther and Black Bears, making the alligator the dominant predator throughout the their environment. Attacks on pets and even people are also not unknown.
Alligator Interesting Facts and Features
Alligator DNA is thought to date back to even before Dinosaur times meaning that the Alligators survived whatever it was that the dinosaurs didn’t, with the scientific estimates first dating the species 150 million years ago. The Chinese Alligator is currently found only in the Yangtze River Valley and the Chinese Alligator is now extremely endangered with less than 100 Chinese Alligators believed to be left in the wild. There are actually many more Chinese Alligators that live in zoos around the world than can be found in the wild today. Alligators are known to have up to 80 teeth which are perfectly shaped for biting down on prey. They are even able to regrow those teeth that are lost.
Alligator Conservation Status and Life Today
The American Alligator was once an Endangered species but thanks to habitat protection and federal laws protecting them, populations throughout Florida and Louisiana have recovered really well, with over a million Alligators thought to exist in the USA today. They are however now threatened by habitatdegradation, mainly in the form of deforestation and pollution in the water. The story of the Chinese Alligator however is very different, with less than 100 individuals thought to be left in the Yangtze River Valley, this species is Critically Endangered in the wild and is sadly on the verge of extinction.