The Chinese alligator is a crocodilian and one of two types of alligator (the second being the American alligator). They differ from their American relatives due to their more robust head and having an upturned snout. They also have a bony plate over the eye which the American alligator does not have.
Their body is covered with scales which are colored yellowish-gray. The lower jaw features a number of black spots. At the end of each of the four limbs are five clawed toes with webbing in between to aid in swimming.
Alligators differ from crocodiles in that the fourth mandibular tooth rests in a socket when the mouth is closed and as such cannot be seen.
At the end of the body is a long tail which is used to push them through the water when swimming.
Chinese alligators are also smaller than the American alligator. The average size of an alligator is 1.5m (5ft) long though one is on record having reached 2.1m (7.1ft). On average they weigh 23kg (50lbs). Females are often smaller than males.
The Chinese alligator is a carnivore. Their diet is made up of snails, crustaceans, fish and insects. They have blunt teeth which allow them to crush the hard shells of their prey. Young birds and rodents will also be eaten.
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Asia is the native home of the Chinese alligator. Here they are found exclusively in China. Their range has been reduced by over 90%.
They make their home in rivers, lakes, swamps and marshland. These are freshwater habitats which are slow moving.
With the expansion of human habitations they have taken advantage of reservoirs, canals, irrigation channels and rice paddies which provide a suitable habitat.
Nesting takes place from July to August. Males will breed with multiple females throughout the breeding season.
Females lay up to 40 eggs in a nest which is created on land. This nest is a mound formed from vegetation and mud. While in their egg the hatchlings can communicate with one another or their mother. Hatching is synchronized and the mother will open the nest to allow the young to exit.
The gender of the hatchling is determined by the temperature during incubation. Low temperatures produce females while high temperatures produce males.
The mother provides care to the hatchlings and this may last for years. She may help them from their egg by gently rolling it in their mouth to slightly crack it.
Maturity is reached between four and five years old. They may continue to produce eggs up until 50 years old.
The Chinese alligator is considered nocturnal. They will emerge at night to hunt.
Chinese alligators will create a burrow underground where they spend much of their time during the day. For part of the year they will brumate (this is not a true hibernation but a similar process which reptiles undertake) underground in these tunnels.
They make a range of vocalizations including a bellow which is made by males and females during the breeding season.
Predators and Threats
As adults the only recorded predator of the Chinese alligator is humans. Juveniles may face predation from birds and large fish along with cannibalism by adult alligators.
Humans have had a severe effect on the population of Chinese alligators leading to the population now including as few as 100 individuals.
Threats which they face include habitat loss and fragmentation, pollution and hunting.
A captive breeding program and habitat restoration efforts have begun to try and prevent the extinction of the Chinese alligator.
The Chinese alligator is also known as the Yangtze alligator or muddy dragon. In Chinese they are called the ‘yowlung’ which means dragon.
Chinese alligators are believed to have split from a common ancestor shared with the American alligator 40 million year ago.
They are the most endangered member of the crocodilian family.
The species was first known to western science in 1879. For a long period of time they were believed to be extinct.
By I, Magalhães, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2371364
CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22627977
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Smithsonian’s National Zoo. 2020. Chinese Alligator. [online] Available at: <https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/chinese-alligator> [Accessed 23 September 2020].
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Stlzoo.org. 2020. Chinese Alligator | Saint Louis Zoo. [online] Available at: <https://www.stlzoo.org/animals/abouttheanimals/reptiles/alligatorsandcrocodiles/chinesealligator> [Accessed 23 September 2020].
The Maryland Zoo. 2020. Chinese Alligator | The Maryland Zoo. [online] Available at: <https://www.marylandzoo.org/animal/chinese-alligator/> [Accessed 23 September 2020].
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