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A Guide to the American Alligator

Alligator mississippiensis, otherwise known as the American Alligator, is one of only two species of alligator living today. The other is the Chinese Alligator which is native only to China, while the American Alligator’s home range is in the southern United States, from the Rio Grande in Texas to the swampy area of the Virginia-North Carolina border. After extensive habitat loss and being widely hunted for its hide, the alligator was placed on the endangered species list in 1967. This unique animal made a comeback in just 20 years and was removed from the list in 1987. Today, it is considered threatened because it looks so similar to the crocodile which is endangered.

Both the American Alligator and the crocodile belong to the order Crocodilia and are called crocodilians. The difference between the two reptiles can generally be seen in their habit, color and snout. Alligators tend to be darker in color with a rounded broad snout and are mostly found in fresh water. Crocodiles have narrow more pointed, triangular snouts, are more gray-green and prefer salt-water habitats.

Alligator mississippiensis generally lives in freshwater lakes, swamps, marshes and slow moving rivers, though it can spend short amounts of time in brackish, saline environments. As a carnivore, the alligator’s diet consists of fish, snakes, turtles, small mammals and as the opportunity arises, carrion. Usually hunting in the water, it can swallow small prey whole. The alligator drowns larger prey by dragging and holding it underwater. Even though they are too large to be considered a food source, humans are at risk for attack by alligators, especially as urban sprawl encroaches on their habitat. Over the years, human encounters with alligators have increased and can result in injury and rarely in death for the person involved.

Male alligators generally occupy a home range of approximately two square miles, while females usually remain in a much smaller area. During courtship and mating season in April and May, they both may venture out over a larger area. When alligators reach about six feet in length, at about 10-12 years of age, they begin to reproduce. After mating, the female builds her nest before laying on average, from 35 to 50 eggs, in late June or early July. The eggs remain covered in the nest until around the end of August, when the baby alligators begin to make high-pitched noises to alert the mother that it’s time to remove the nesting material so they can hatch. The babies, six to eight inches long at birth, are protected by their mother during their first years of life, but still have only about a twenty percent survival rate.

Human fascination with the American Alligator has spawned many myths. Among the most common are about size and longevity. Despite the myths that alligators grow to an enormous size and can live for hundreds of years, they actually rarely reach more than 13 feet in length and in the wild they live 35-50 years, longer in captivity. Another popular myth is that alligators have poor eyesight, when in fact they have very good eyesight. One myth that continues to be perpetuated is that these reptiles make good pets, which is totally untrue, especially since they are predators that act on instinct and don’t react affectionately to people.

Alligator mississippiensis, the amazing armor-plated creature that inhabits the swampy regions of the southern United States is a reminder of the pre-historic life that roamed North America. With access to online resources, armchair travelers and wildlife enthusiasts can learn about these crocodilians from the safety and comfort of home. With digital photos and videos readily available, it’s easy to see the American Alligator in its natural environment.

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