The American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is known throughout the world as an iconic native wildlife species of North America, immortalized in country music and popular culture.
"Polk salad Annie, gators got your granny," is a lyric from a 2006 song by Tony Joe White and Johnny Hallyday.
Today this impressive reptile thrives in coastal wetlands, rivers and lakes from North Carolina to Texas, but was once considered vulnerable, and placed under federal protection in 1966, until it was taken off the Endangered Species List in 1987.
Illegal, unregulated hunting of alligators had reduced populations in parts of its range, but the threat of large-scale illegal hunting for its valuable hide essentially stopped following a 1969 amendment to the Lacey Act of 1900, which brought reptiles under the protection of this landmark federal law. The Lacey Act of 1900 outlawed market hunting and fishing in America, creating civil and criminal penalties for trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold.
Some biologists argued that the American Alligator never merited federal protection, in part because its population was large and healthy at the time of passage of the Endangered Species Act. A 1973 survey by Louisiana wildlife biologist Ted Joanen estimated that the total population of the American Alligator in the southeast was 734,384, and increasing over most of its range.
Interestingly, the American Alligator is one of only two alligator species in the world today, the other being the Chinese Alligator (Alligator sinensis), an endangered species that rarely exceeds seven feet in length and is found in eastern China, in the Yangtze River basin.
Alligators first appeared during the Oligocene epoch about 37 million years ago. There are four extant species of alligator, known from fossil remains.
Alligator Management and Hunting
Today there are large, huntable populations of the American Alligator in the states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. The largest populations are in Louisiana and Florida, with over one million alligators in both states.
Fish and Wildlife agencies in these states manage alligator populations, which includes the removal of nuisance alligators that pose a risk to humans and livestock, and issue permits for regulated hunting on public and private lands.
Seasons are typically in the late summer or early fall, and alligators are taken by hook and line, with bows and arrows, snares, and firearms.
Size and Coloration
Adult American Alligators are enormous, weighing on average as much as 800 pounds, with a length of more than 13 feet. One of the largest ever recorded in Louisiana measured over 19 feet in length.
Adult alligators are black or dark olive-brown with white undersides, while juveniles have strongly contrasting white or yellow markings, which fade with age.
In captivity the American Alligator can live more than 50 years.
American alligators live in freshwater ponds, lakes, rivers and wetlands, and venture into brackish coastal waters.
They are considered an important species for maintaining ecological diversity in wetlands by digging holes that increase plant diversity and provide habitat for other animals during droughts. They prey on rodents, such as the nutria, and furbearers like the muskrat, which graze on vegetation, causing severe damage to coastal wetlands.
Young alligators eat small fish, insects, snails, crustaceans, and worms.
As they grow in size, progressively larger prey is taken, including larger fish like gar and carp, turtles, mammals as large as deer, birds, and other reptiles.
A large alligator may kill and eat the family dog and livestock. Larger prey is usually grabbed in a quick rush, and pulled underwater, to drown.
Alligators are generally timid towards humans and tend to walk or swim away if approached. While attacks on humans are rare, they are often deadly. Alligators, unlike large crocodiles, do not regard a human as prey, but may attack in self-defense if provoked, or their nests are approached.
Feeding wild alligators is dangerous, and illegal in most states. Alligators eventually lose their fear of humans if feed, and will learn to associate humans with food, thereby becoming a greater danger to humans, especially small children and the elderly.
Nesting and Reproduction
Alligators generally mature when they reach a length of about six feet.
Their mating season is in late spring.
Alligators form so-called "bellowing choruses," where large groups of them bellow together for a few minutes, usually in the early morning.
In summer, the female builds a nest of vegetation. The decomposition of the vegetation provides the heat needed to incubate the eggs.
The temperatures experienced during embryonic/larval development determine the sex of the offspring. This only occurs in reptiles and 448 families of fish, 96 percent of which are extinct.
Incubation temperatures of 86 degrees Fahrenheit (F) or lower produce a clutch of females, while 93 degrees F or higher produce entirely males.The sex ratio at hatching is typically five females to one male. This is a major reason why alligator populations rebounded so quickly during the two decades that they were under federal protection.
Nests constructed on leaves are hotter than those constructed on wet marsh.
The baby alligator's egg tooth helps it get out of its egg at hatching time. 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 American Alligator is arguably one of the most interesting reptiles in North America and an iconic species known throughout the World.
Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast.