The American alligator is one of the world's two alligator species with the other being the Chinese alligator found in Asia.
In their North American home the American alligator is a fearsome predator which is capable of taking down large prey. This is then consumed by shaking it to break it in to smaller pieces with their teeth not considered good for tearing.
Humans are the only predator of adult American alligators and when hunting pressures intensified during the 1960s they were almost driven to extinction but conservation efforts have since helped to recover their numbers.
What does the American Alligator look like?
The American alligator has a broad, rounded snout which is relatively flat. They have been built for a life in the water. Their nostrils face upwards allowing them to breathe while the rest of them is submerged. They have five toes on their front legs and four on the back legs. These are partially webbed to help them move through the water.
At the end of the body is a strong tail which helps to propel them through the water as they swim. The tail is flattened vertically to assist with swimming.
Their body is covered in scales. Their colouration ranges from light browns through to black on the top. Their underside is a cream colour. Juveniles have distinctive yellow stripes across their back. Along the back are a series of small spikes known as osteoderms. These are hard plates which serve to protect the alligator.
Alligators can be distinguished from crocodiles as the fourth tooth on the jaw slips in to a socket in the jaw which means it can not be seen when the mouth is closed. The jaw of crocodiles also tend to a narrow to a point giving it a V-shape while the jaw of an alligator is more curved making a U-shape.
The average female American alligator measures 2.6m (8.2ft) long. In comparison males measure 3.4m (11.2ft) long. An average individual will weigh between 180 and 228kg (400-500lbs). Though some males have reached weights of up to 450kg(992lbs).
What helps the American Alligator to survive in its habitat?
American alligators constantly replace their teeth. As old ones wear out they develop new ones to replace them. Throughout their life they may have as many as 3000 teeth. At any given time they have between 70 and 80 teeth within their mouth.
In the throat of an American alligator is an additional flap of skin called the glottis which helps to close over the throat while they are underwater. This allows them to capture prey without being at risk of drowning.
What does the American Alligator eat?
The American Alligator is considered the apex predator within its habitat. The American alligator is a carnivore which will feed on fish, birds, invertebrates, frogs and mammals. There has also been recent evidence that alligators feed on fruits.
Alligators will swallow a small prey item whole. The larger items are shaken apart as the alligators teeth are not designed for cutting. Their jaw is strong enough to break through hard shells such as those of turtles.
Where can you find the American Alligator?
American alligators live throughout the southeastern United States within North America. Here they can be found in the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. They are the most cold-resistant of the crocodilians. This allows them to spread quite far into the North of the country.
What kind of environment does the American Alligator live in?
American Alligators inhabit lakes, ponds, rivers, marshes, swamps and wetlands. Most of their time is spent in fresh water but they have been seen in areas of brackish water. Occasionally they will be seen in salt water, mainly to feed when food is scarce.
How does the American Alligator produce its young?
American alligators work on their nests and egg laying between June and July.
Courtship for American alligators begins in spring. At night the alligators gather for the ‘alligator dances.’ At these dances the alligators swim in pairs for hours and sometime afterwards they will swim away to spots where they mate. The female builds a nest from vegetation where she will deposit a clutch of 35 to 50 eggs.
During the breeding season the males produce a roar which serves to both scare off rival males and alert females to their presence and desire to mate.
After 65 days the juveniles will begin to emerge. The temperature affects what sex the juveniles will be. A temperature above 93°F (34°C) will produce a male. Temperatures below 86°F (30°C) will produce a female. Temperatures between this range will produce a mix of males and females. Before hatching the juveniles will emit high-pitched sounds. This signals to the mother that it is time to remove the nesting material.
Juvenile alligators have darker, near black skin which is patterned with a series of yellow spots and stripes.
The young gators live in pods which will allow for some level of security. 80% of these will be picked off by predators. These predators include bobcats, otters , snakes, larger alligators, raccoons and birds.
Alligators will remain with their mothers territory for 2 years. At the end of this time they will either disperse of their own choosing or be driven out by larger, more dominant alligators in the area.
They age at which they achieve sexual maturity is determined by length and is typically reached around 1.2m of length. The average age at which this length is achieved is between 10 and 12 years old. Growth takes place throughout their life but tends to slow down around 20 years old.
What does the American Alligator do with its day?
Alligators are one of the nosiest reptiles on Earth. They make a range of roars and bellows as adults while young also produce a bark. To communicate their territory they may use a head slap which involves raising their head above the water and quickly slamming it down again. This causes a loud pop which carries through their territory.
Both males and females maintain a home territory. The males are larger than the females. During breeding season both genders expand their range.
They are able to remain underwater for between 45 and 60 minutes before needing to surface for air.
During periods of cold weather they will dig a depression along the waterway where they will enter a period of inactivity. During extreme warm temperatures they may dig holes in the riverbank which fill with water where temperatures will remain stable and protect them. These are often used after by a number of other species.
Most of their activity takes place at night when they will hunt for prey.
Predators and Threats
What is impacting the survival of the American Alligator?
The American Alligator almost became extinct in the 1960s due to hunting but now has recovered to such a large number there are no concerns. Estimates put the current adult population at between 3 and 4 million individuals.
Previously the largest threat to the American alligator came from hunting to supply the skin and meat trades. They are now afforded protection across much of their range with most range states protecting wild crocodiles and regulating the trade in captive individuals. Some range states allow for egg collection to supply captive ranches.
An increasing threat is habitat degradation due to the expansion of agriculture and human habitation. This can lead to flooding, water pollution and more within their habitat.
The alligator is the reptile emblem of three US states.
Scientists believe the American alligator has been around for 150 million years.
The name alligator is taken from the Spanish phrase, el lagarto which translates in to English as the lizard.
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