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Understanding Alligators
Article by: Jessica Warren, ANR Agent, Camden County

Coastal Georgia is a beautiful place to call home, full of natural beauty and unique ecosystems. There’s a certain wildness to the area that adds to its mystique and appeal. The creature that perhaps symbolizes that wildness and mystique best, is the American Alligator.

American Alligators are one of 24 species of crocodilians in the world, 10 of which are listed as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. Crocodilians are the last living reptiles that were closely related to dinosaurs, with their closest modern relative being birds. Alligators are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and do not require a lot of food. A 100lb dog will eat more in one year than an 800lb alligator. Alligators regulate their body temperature by moving to areas of warmer or cooler air or water. They bask in the sun and on hot days they can be seen basking with their mouths open to cool off, which works similarly to a dog panting. Alligators are most active when temperatures are 82-92 degrees Fahrenheit. They stop feeding when temperatures drop below 70 degrees and go into dormancy below 55 degrees. Alligators spend most of the winter in a dormant state, during which they can often be found in burrows that they’ve constructed. They will emerge occasionally on warm days to bask in the sun. When ponds begin to freeze, alligators will stick their snouts above water allowing them to be frozen in place in a strange behavior termed “icing.” In this position they will enter dormancy underwater while they remain able to breathe through their exposed snout. This allows them to survive freezing temperatures.

Alligators are long-lived reptiles whose lifespan can exceed 60 years. They live in swampy areas, rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, and wetlands below the fall line in Georgia. Though they prefer freshwater lakes, slow-moving rivers, and wetlands, they can be found in brackish and occasionally salt water. Alligators usually remain close to where they were born for two to three years before they begin looking for their own home range. Females have small home ranges, while males may have a home range of two square miles or more. Alligators have a very strong homing instinct. Biologists have found that relocating alligators is ineffective, as they can find their way to their home range after relocations of 100 miles or more.

Alligators are opportunistic feeders who will take advantage of a variety of prey, including smaller alligators. Juveniles typically feed on insects, amphibians, small fish, and aquatic invertebrates. Adults feed primarily on fish, snakes, turtles, small mammals, and birds. Though alligators don’t seek out pets specifically as prey, dogs and cats that are not kept away from alligator habitat are likely to be taken as prey. If fact any animal (humans included) that is splashing in the water may invite unwanted attention. Splashing is the sign of an injured and vulnerable prey item.

Though a lot of fear and misconceptions surround these large reptiles, it is easy to safely coexist with them. In fact, you are more likely to win the lottery or be struck by lightning than you are to be seriously injured by an alligator. The most important thing is not to feed alligators or animals inhabiting waters with alligators. Alligators are naturally afraid of humans. This changes when they begin associating humans with food. Likewise, you shouldn’t clean fish in the water or leave behind bait or carcasses in possible alligator habitat. Feeding alligators is illegal and is punishable with fines and up to 30 days in jail. As with any wild animal, keep your distance and never corner alligators. It is illegal to harass or throw things at alligators, and you should never disturb nests or small alligators. Alligators are unique among reptiles in that they provide maternal care. A mother will defend and protect her young for up to three years after hatching.

Alligators were hunted to near extinction in the 50s and 60s, but they are now one the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act. Through state and federal protections, they have rebounded and are now common in many areas of the Southeast. The main threat facing alligator populations today is the destruction and degradation of wetland habitat – most often in association with human development. Alligators are also experiencing habitat loss from the effects of pollution. Contaminants such as pharmaceuticals and mercury have decreased water quality and caused physiological effects in exposed alligator populations. The American alligator is still federally listed as threatened due to their similarity in appearance to the American crocodile.

Alligators are a keystone species. Much like the keystone in a Roman arch which when removed causes the whole arch to collapse, alligators are critical to the health of their ecosystem and without them many plant and animal species suffer and/or die. Alligators are apex predators that feed on a variety of food sources from insects to deer and help keep prey populations in check. In addition, alligators create habitat that is used by many other species. During droughts they create wallows or dens that retain water when other sources have dried up – providing other wildlife species and plants the water resources that they need to survive.