Floridian Nature

Learn about Florida's beautiful and unique nature.

Florida Reptiles: Alligator
Alligator looking to eat a young bird by the waterFlorida is well known for its most famous reptile, the alligator. Alligators were once endangered but they are now listed as threatened, although it is hard to go to any source of freshwater in the state of Florida without spotting an alligator.  Lakes, rivers, ponds and even retention areas are all filled with varying amounts of gators. They are also found in brackish waters, but not very often and certainly not to the extent of crocodiles, who prefer the brackish waters near the Everglades.

When Spanish settlers first saw the Alligator they named it "el lagarto", meaning "the lizard". The Florida alligator is an ancient reptile that is only found in the Southeastern United States, from Texas to as far north as North Carolina. The only other species of alligator in the world is found in China, but that one is much smaller and very rare.

 In the Everglades, alligators seek refuge during the dry season in "gator holes".  After swimming, you will often see an alligator sunning itself on the riverbanks, shores, or even a large log. When a gator is swimming on the surface, only its head and part of his back protrude above the water. While in this  position an alligator can breathe, see, hear, smell, and taste. Gators also spend a lot of time submerged and can stay underwater for up to three hours at a time. A gator swims with its legs tucked against its body, moving forward quietly by sweeping its powerful tail from side to side. While swimming in this manner, an alligator can quietly approach its prey, looking more like a floating log than a dangerous reptile!

The Alligator has an armored  black, lizard-like body, with muscular tails and short stocky legs. They are fast predators on both land and water, able to run as fast as 20 mph for short distances. The massive jaws of the alligator's open mouth reveals 70-80 white pointed teeth, designed to grasp, hold and crush its prey! The alligator snout is broad with the edge of the upper jaw overlapping the teeth of the lower jaw. The alligators silvery eyes sit back on the top of the head, and they have excellent vision, even at night. Alligators Eyes will shine red when you shine a light on them at night Alligators have two sets of eyelids. One set is similar to humans, while the second set of eyelids is transparent, allowing the gator to see clearly underwater. Florida Gators also have a keen sense of smell.  Adults generally take one of two forms: long and thin or short and stocky. Female alligators rarely exceed 9 feet in length, but males can grow much larger. The Florida state record for length is a 14 foot 5/8 inch male, while the  state record for weight is a 1,043 pound (13 feet 10 1/2 inches long) male.

Alligators are opportunistic feeders, and are often stealthy "sit and wait" predators. Their diets include prey species that are abundant and easily accessible. 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. Sometimes a hungry alligator will even resort to eating his own kind!  If a gator cannot swallow its prey whole, it pulls, twists and tears, until gulp size chunks are torn off. With large prey such as deer, the alligator performs the "gator roll",  pulling the victim underwater, and rolling with it until the prey drowns.

Florida alligator sunning on a logAlligator's don't look very romantic to us, but they do have a courting period every year. Alligator courtship takes place in the spring. Female gators begin reproducing at six to ten years of age. A male usually mates with only one female during the season. The female alligator builds her nest about two months after mating. Scraping together a mound of earth and plant debris, the nest is about two to three feet high, and is about 10 to 15 feet from the waters edge. Using her powerful hind foot, the mother alligator digs a cavity into the nest and lays between 30 and 50 eggs. Females guard their nest carefully until the brood hatches sometime between mid-August and September. Baby gators are eight or nine inches long and beautifully marked with yellow and black bands. Young hatchlings quickly make their way to the water, sometimes carried there in the mother's mouth. The sex of the eggs are determined by the temperature at which the eggs incubate. In an alligator nest, eggs that incubate between 90-93 degrees Fahrenheit become males while temperatures between 82 and 86 degrees become females. Temperatures between 87-89 have an almost  equal ratio of males and females. Mother alligators are very protective and keep a close eye on both the eggs and the young hatchlings. There is no place you would want to be less than finding yourself coming between a mother alligators and her nest!!

One of the Alligators most conspicuous habits is its loud bellowing. Bellowing is done during the night and day by both male and female gators. If you have ever heard an alligator bellow, you won't soon forget it. Occurring at any time, on land or in the water, alligator bellowing seems to be a display of communication for gators. Just before a male gator bellows audibly, its whole torso vibrates. If it is floating on the surface, sprays of fine water droplets dance off his back like they would from a vibrating tuning fork dipped in water. The unique phenomenon has been called the gator dance!

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