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Alligators
American Alligator.jpg
An American alligator in captivity at the Columbus Zoo
Scientific classification
Kingdom:
Class:
Order:
Family:
Genus:
Alligator

Daudin, 1809
Species

Alligator mississippiensis
Alligator sinensis

Alligator is a genus in the order Crocodilia. There are two living species: the American alligator and the smaller Chinese alligator. Together with the caimans, the gharials, and the crocodiles, they make up the order Crocodilia.

Scientists estimate that the first alligators existed about 37 million years ago. However, older species of alligators have become extinct. Alligators are native only to the United States and China.

Description

Albino Alligator in Water
A rare albino alligator swimming

An average adult American alligator weighs 790 lb (360 kg) and is 13.1 ft (4.0 m) long. However, they can grow to 14 ft (4.3 m) long and weigh over 990 lb (450 kg). The largest alligator ever recorded, found in Louisiana, was 19.2 ft (5.9 m) long.

There are two kinds of white alligators: albino and leucistic. These alligators are practically impossible to find in the wild. They could survive only in captivity and are few in number. The Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans has leucistic alligators found in a Louisiana swamp in 1987.

Nobody knows how long alligators live, on average. An 80-year-old alligator named Muja, living in the Belgrade Zoo in Serbia, is thought to be the oldest alligator living in captivity.

Differences between alligators and crocodiles

American alligator ready to strike
American alligator ready to strike

Alligators and crocodiles are different in many ways. For example, in general:

  • Alligators usually live in freshwater habitats. Crocodiles have salt glands, so they can live in saltwater habitats.
  • Most alligators have wide snouts that are shaped like a U. Usually, crocodiles' snouts are longer, narrower, and are shaped like a V. However, some crocodiles do have wide snouts.
  • When its mouth is closed, you cannot see the fourth tooth on an alligator's jaw. You can see that tooth when a crocodile's mouth is closed.

Habitat

A. mississippiensis
Head
Eye

Alligators are native to only the United States, Mexico, and China.

American alligators are found in the southeast United States: all of Florida and Louisiana; the southern parts of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi; coastal South and North Carolina; East Texas, the southeast corner of Oklahoma, and the southern tip of Arkansas. Louisiana has the largest alligator population. The majority of American alligators inhabit Florida and Louisiana, with over a million alligators in each state. Southern Florida is the only place where both alligators and crocodiles live side by side. A small population is also found in Tamaulipas, in Mexico.

American alligators live in freshwater environments, such as ponds, marshes, wetlands, rivers, lakes, and swamps, as well as in brackish water. When they construct alligator holes in the wetlands, they increase plant diversity and provide habitat for other animals during droughts. They are, therefore, considered an important species for maintaining ecological diversity in wetlands. Farther west, in Louisiana, heavy grazing by coypu and muskrat are causing severe damage to coastal wetlands. Large alligators feed extensively on coypu, and provide a vital ecological service by reducing coypu numbers.

The Chinese alligator currently is found in only the Yangtze River valley and parts of adjacent provinces and is extremely endangered, with only a few dozen believed to be left in the wild. Indeed, far more Chinese alligators live in zoos around the world than can be found in the wild. Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in southern Louisiana has several in captivity in an attempt to preserve the species. Miami MetroZoo in Florida also has a breeding pair of Chinese alligators.

Food

Alligator eating Bird, NPSPhoto (9247363371)
Alligator eating a bird

Although the alligator often moves slowly, it can run quickly for short times, especially in very short lunges. Usually, alligators' main prey are smaller animals they can kill and eat with a single bite. If the prey is not big enough to eat in one bite, they may drag the animal into the water to drown it. They may also bite they prey and then spin wildly until bite-sized chunks are torn off. This is called a "death roll."

American alligators

American Alligator eating crab
American alligator eating a crab

American alligators live mostly in the southeast United States. According to the 2012 Scholastic Book of World Records, Louisiana has the largest alligator population, with about two million. Most American alligators live in Louisiana or Florida, which is home to about 1.3 million alligators. Southern Florida is the only place where both alligators and crocodiles live side by side.

American alligators cannot live in saltwater very long because they do not have salt glands. Because of this, they live in freshwater environments, such as ponds, marshes, wetlands, rivers, lakes, and swamps, as well as in brackish environments.

Chinese alligators

Chinese Alligator
Chinese Alligator

Chinese alligators are smaller than American alligators. They are rarely longer than 6.9 ft (2.1 m). In addition, it weighs considerably less than the American alligator. Male Chinese alligators rarely weigh over 99 lb (45 kg). The Chinese alligator is currently found only in Eastern China, in a small area in the Yangtze River basin (along the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean).

The Chinese alligator is extremely endangered. Scientists believe that only a few dozen Chinese alligators are left in the wild. Far more Chinese alligators live in zoos around the world than in the wild. Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in southern Louisiana has several in captivity in an attempt to preserve the species. Miami MetroZoo in Florida also has a breeding pair of Chinese alligators.

Behavior

Alligator mississippiensis (with opened mouth)
Alligator mouth

Large male alligators are solitary (live alone), territorial animals. Larger males and females will fight to defend prime territory. Smaller alligators can often be found in large numbers close to each other.

Alligators move on land in two ways: the "sprawl" and the "high walk." The sprawl is a forward movement with the belly making contact with the ground. It is used to slither over wet surfaces into water. The high walk is a forward movement up on four limbs. It is used for overland travel with the belly well up from the ground. Alligators have also been observed to rise up and balance on their hind legs and semi-step forward as part of a forward or upward lunge. However, they can not walk on their hind legs for long distances.

Alligator mississippiensis yawn
Alligator yawning

Most of the muscle in an alligator's jaw are meant to bite and grip prey. The muscles that close the jaws are extremely powerful, but the muscles for opening their jaws are comparatively weak. As a result, an adult human can hold an alligator's jaws shut bare-handed. It is common today to use several wraps of duct tape to prevent an adult alligator from opening its jaws when being handled or moved.

Alligators are generally timid toward humans and tend to walk or swim away if one approaches. In Florida, feeding wild alligators at any time is illegal. If fed, the alligators will eventually lose their fear of humans and will learn to associate humans with food. This would result in alligators becoming a greater danger to people.

Reproduction

Different stages of alligator life-cycle
Alligator eggs and young
Alligator juveniles
Alligators of various ages

Alligators generally mature at a length of 6 ft (1.8 m). The mating season is in late spring. In April and May, alligators form so-called "bellowing choruses." Large groups of animals bellow together for a few minutes a few times a day, usually one to three hours after sunrise. The bellows of male American alligators are accompanied by powerful blasts of infrasound. Another form of male display is a loud head-slap. Recently, on spring nights, alligators were found to gather in large numbers for group courtship, the so-called "alligator dances."

In summer, the female builds a nest of vegetation where the decomposition of the vegetation provides the heat needed to incubate the eggs. The gender of the offspring is determined by the temperature in the nest and is fixed within seven to 21 days of the start of incubation. Incubation temperatures of 86 °F (30 °C) or lower produce a clutch of females. Incubation temperatures of 93 °F (34 °C) or higher produce entirely males. Nests constructed on leaves are hotter than those constructed on wet marsh, so leaf nests tend to produce males, while the wet marsh nests tend to produce females. The baby alligator's egg tooth helps it get out of its egg during hatching time.

The natural gender ratio at hatching is five females to one male (5:1). Female hatchlings weigh more than males. The mother defends the nest from predators and assists the hatchlings to water. She will provide protection to the young for about a year if they remain in the area. The largest threat to the young are adult alligators.

Human uses

Alligator meat in Orlando
Alligator meat in Orlando

Alligators are raised commercially for their meat and skin. Alligator skin is used for bags and shoes. Alligators bring money to an economy through tourism. Visitors may take swamp tours, in which alligators are a feature. Their most important economic benefit to humans may be the control of coypu and muskrats. Louisiana spends millions of dollars of bounty money to control coypu using alligators.

Alligator meat is also eaten by humans. The meat of the alligator is characterized as fish.

Protected status

Alligator grin-scubadive67
An American alligator

American alligators were once an endangered species in the United States. Today, the American alligator is no longer endangered, but it is still a "protected species." It is protected because the alligator looks like some species of crocodiles and caimans, which are still endangered. The Fish and Wildlife Service ranks the American alligator as “threatened due to similarity of appearance.”

Their goal is to prevent people from killing endangered crocodiles and caimans because they have mistaken an alligator for a crocodile or caiman. Because of this, killing alligators and trading in products made from alligator meat or skin are all regulated by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Interesting facts about alligators

  • Alligators are intelligent. They have been seen holding sticks and branches on their heads to lure birds who are looking for materials for their nests.
  • Although alligators do not have vocal cords, they use a variety of calls to communicate with other alligators.
  • Alligators do not stop growing.
  • They can eat almost a quarter of their body weight in one meal.
  • An alligator’s stomach can dissolve bone, so they have no need to eat around the bones of their prey.
  • Alligators eat more than just meat. They like to eat fruit as well.

Images for kids

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Alligator para niños

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