American Alligator

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Range
Found only in the United States along the Atlantic coast from the border of Virginia and North Carolina south through southern Florida and west to the Rio Grande in east Texas. Range follows the Mississippi River drainage north to southern Arkansas. (FL, NC, SC, GA, MS, AR, AL, TX, LA)

Habitat
Can be found in all available aquatic habitats from marshes and swamps to rivers, lakes, tidal areas and, on rare occasions, the ocean.

Distinguishing Characteristics
The American alligator possesses a stout body and powerful tail that is at least as long as the body and acts as a fat reserve. The snout is long and wide with nostrils perched atop to allow for breathing while the animal’s body is submerged.

Males and females both have “armored” bodies covered in embedded bony plates called osteoderms. The legs of the alligator are short but allow the animal to move quite quickly on land. The front legs have 5 clawed toes while the back legs have only 4.

The average size for an adult female is around 10 feet long and about 200-250 pounds while an adult male is 13-15 feet (max) weighing in at 450-600 pounds. Alligators can grow a foot or more each year for the first 4-5 years and then continue more slowly until they reach the maximum length. American alligators reaching lengths of 16-20 feet have been reported in the past. The record size is 19 feet 2 inches long, and the animal was caught in Louisiana in the 1900s.

Alligators can vary in color from grayish green to olive brown to black with a cream colored underside. Eyes are generally silvery. Young alligators typically have bright yellow stripes on the back and tail.

Alligators are pretty distinctive - the challenge lies in determining the difference between American alligators and American crocodiles.

Gator vs. Croc
• Gators are usually darker / more black, and crocs are usually lighter, more of a green brown…but that’s not always true.
• Alligators have a more rounded snout while a croc snout is more pointed…but that’s not always true.
• Teeth are the deciding factor: When an alligator closes its mouth, you cannot see the bottom teeth. When a croc closes its mouth, you can see the bottom teeth - in particular the fourth mandibular tooth on each side, which sticks straight up.
• Belly scales of crocs have a single black dot (gators do not).
• Crocs tend to be more aggressive.

Dietary Classification
Diet in the Zoo: Commercial crocodilian pellets

Diet in the Wild: It has been said that alligators will eat anything that “comes in range of its jaws that flies, walks, swims or crawls and that is small enough for them to kill.” Diet really depends on what is available.

Hatchling alligators will eat insects, crabs, small fish, crayfish, frogs, snails and other small prey items. Full-size alligators will eat fish, crustaceans, snakes, turtles, birds and mammals. Alligators have also been known to consume carrion. It may take several days to a week to digest a large meal.

Crocodilians have the most acidic stomachs of any recorded vertebrate species, which is helpful when digesting all the bone that they consume. On average, nearly 60% of the energy from a meal is stored as fat, which allows the crocodilian to survive for extended periods without food.

Life Span
Wild: 30-45 years
Captivity: 50-80 years, possibly longer

Behavior/Adaptations
Alligators often live in groups and form dominance hierarchies during the breeding season and sometimes all year long.

The sense of smell is well developed, and their hearing is fine. They can use eyesight to hunt prey above water, but below the water, eyesight is not as helpful, and they must rely upon other senses too. Alligators have a nictitating membrane that covers the eye allowing it to stay open while submerged; however, the membrane does not allow the eye to focus.

American alligators are the most vocal of the crocodilians. Living in dense swamps and marshes where it is difficult to locate individuals makes vocalizations quite important. The young make a high-pitched barking noise to alert the mother. Adults will often bellow, roar, hiss and snarl at each other. They will also emit "chumpf" noises, which are cough-like purrs that are made during courtship.

Alligators are able to leap vertically out of the water. This leap is often to grab a bird or other prey item. They can stay submerged for up to an hour and possibly longer.

Humans can bite with a force ranging from 55-200 pounds. Lions can bite with a force of 940 pounds. A 12-foot alligator can bite with a force of 2,125 pounds! That’s like being hit with the weight of a small pickup truck!

Alligators are very good mothers! In addition to elaborate nest building, protection and assistance in hatching, the mother continues to care for her young for several weeks or months. After hatching, she will carry them in her mouth to the water. The babies can often be seen basking on the mother's head.

Status
IUCN Red List: Threatened, low risk (LR) and least concern (lc)
The populations have been evaluated to be stable, and the alligator is at low risk of extinction.

CITIES: Appendix II
This means that international trade in alligators is strictly regulated. The primary reason for this is due to the fact that alligator skin resembles that of other crocodilian species that are threatened or endangered. In the United States, there is a multi-million dollar industry that revolves around captive farming of alligators for their meat and skin.

Zoo Specifics
CONSERVATION TIMELINE
1. The harvesting of alligators was unregulated in the early to mid 1900s.

2. Alabama's alligators were almost extirpated by 1941 when it became the first state to give the alligators complete protection.

3. In 1943, Florida’s concerns over the alligator population decline led to the establishment of a 4-foot minimum size limit to define harvestable gators. Despite this regulation, the decline continued. In 1954, a statewide 6-foot minimum size limit was imposed. However, this regulation also did little to stop the alligators' decimation, and in 1962, the harvesting of alligators was banned. Many believed the species would never recover.

4. Finally, in 1967, the American alligator was placed on the first Endangered Species List (under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973). In 1970, federal regulations were imposed that effectively shut down the illegal alligator market, and the populations of alligators began to rebound.

5. In 1977, the alligator was reclassified from an endangered to a threatened species. This change in status allowed the alligator once again to be available for commercial use. During the 1980s, the alligator was viewed as a renewable resource, and several alligator management programs were instituted. These programs allowed for controlled hunting of the alligator by private individuals and the collection of eggs and hatchlings by licensed alligator farms.

6. In Florida, the alligators were pronounced fully recovered by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1987. Alligators remain on the threatened list because they are similar in appearance to the listed American crocodile.

Alligators remain one of the best examples of man's ability to revive threatened wildlife populations.