by EVERGLADES HOLIDAY PARK
Most of us learned something about alligators in school. But this early exposure is limited, and generations of kids turn into adults who view gators through lenses clouded by misinformation.
How long have alligators been around? What makes them tick? Even better, what ticks them off? Hopefully, this piece will help you better understand this living dinosaur. We’ll examine some common misconceptions and learn 15 fascinating facts about alligators that might just make you want to visit them up close and personal on one of our famous airboat tours!
Fact 1: Do alligators cry? Yes!
When a person is accused of crying alligator (or crocodile) tears, the implication is that the tears are fake and the emotion is far from genuine. But alligators and crocodiles really do shed genuine tears, but only to clean and moisturize their eyes.
Fact 2: The Spanish gave the alligator its name.
Early Spanish soldiers and settlers in Florida called the weird-looking reptiles they encountered el lagarto (Spanish for the lizard). In time, the name morphed into allagarter and finally, alligator. The first alligators appeared on the scene about 37 million years ago and are, quite literally, living dinosaurs. They are native to only two places in the world:
- The American alligator lives in the southern U.S. from North Carolina to the Rio Grande in Texas.
- The Chinese alligator calls eastern China, along the Yangtze River, home.
However, Chinese alligators are tough creatures to find. Much of the Chinese gator’s natural habitat is being transformed by progress and some worry that there might be only a few dozen left.
The American alligator, on the other hand, is bigger and heftier than its Chinese cousin. The male American gator grows to between 11 and 13 feet and weighs close to 800 pounds. Its Chinese counterpart doesn’t get past seven feet and usually tips the scale at 300 pounds or less. Alligators gravitate to rivers, lakes and freshwater ponds. They can spend only limited amounts of time in saltwater because they don’t have the functioning “salt glands” that ocean-dwelling birds, fish, and reptiles use to shed excess salt.
Fact 3: Do Alligators sweat? They do not!
Alligators are also unable to regulate their body temperatures internally as humans and other warm-blooded animals do. If an alligator wants to warm up, it has to find a sunny spot. Because the gator also lacks sweat glands, it cools off by opening its mouth, finding a shady spot or going for a swim.
Gators don’t have salt glands or warm blood, but do alligators sweat? No. They also don’t have sweat glands, and they release heat through their mouth. You might think the alligator was short-changed, but that’s not necessarily true. Millions of years ago, they shared the earth with dinosaurs. When Earth’s temperature plummeted, warm-blooded organisms died off. Fortunately, this meant the cold-blooded gators were able to survive.
Fact 4: A baby alligator’s sex is determined by the nest’s temperature.
According to the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology, the temperature of the nest where alligator eggs incubate determines whether male or female offspring will be born. Females are produced when the nest temperature is below 82.4 Fahrenheit (F) – males are produced when temperatures are above 91.4 F. A temperature of 87.8 F will produce an even number of males and females.
Fact 5: Alligators are lone rangers.
Alligators don’t typically travel in packs. Highly territorial, they prefer to travel and wander alone. When adult alligators do gather together at a sunny spot, the group is referred to as a “congregation.” Alligators are typically awkward and slow-moving on land, but in the water, they use their tails to attain speeds of 20 miles per hour (mph) or more.
Fact 6: The alligator diet can include fruit and plants, if available.
Alligators are carnivores, and their typical diet is comprised of fish, mollusks, birds, small mammals and smaller reptiles. At least some of the alligators housed with large tortoises at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park were seen eating lettuce leaves and squash that had been put out for the tortoises. The alligators had also been seen eating kumquats, oranges, lemons and limes. While it’s highly unlikely the American alligator will adopt an all-vegan approach to eating, they might be willing to live by more than meat alone, if given the opportunity.
Fact 7: Turtles sometimes hitch a ride in an alligator’s mouth.
While we’re on the subject of alligator preferences, we should discuss the odd dynamic that exists between alligators and turtles. Do alligators like meat? Yes. Are turtles meat? Yes. So do alligators eat turtles? Despite being friends, they sometimes do.
If you spend even a little time looking at photos of gators, you’ll see pictures of alligators and turtles sunning together on a log. It’s not uncommon for a photographer to snap a picture of a turtle hitching a ride in the gator’s mouth across a creek or river. Why does this happen?
The explanation involves the curious configuration of a turtle’s shell and the limits of an alligator’s jaw power. If the upper part of the shell (the carapace) is too large, the alligator is unable to snap its powerful jaws shut.
Fact 8: Male alligators fertilize multiple females per mating season.
The alligator mating season kicks off in late May and continues through the early part of June. Shallow waters or the shore is a favorite late-evening trysting spot. Males produce a heart-stopping roar to attract females and to warn off any other males who might be nearby. After circling the female (what we humans call “checking her out”) the male gets down to business. Males are known to fertilize several females each season and once the mating is done, the males don’t stick around.
The female then makes a large nest for her eggs. This nest is constructed of mud, sticks and other vegetation – it typically stands 2-3 feet high and is 7-10 feet around. In late spring or early summer, the eggs are laid. Most females lay between 35-50 eggs but numbers vary based on age and relative health. There are recorded cases of nests containing up to 90 eggs.
Once the eggs are laid, the female covers her nest with more sticks, foliage and mud. She remains near her nest during the two-month incubation period. She waits and listens for the high-pitched “chirping” the babies make from inside the shell that signals the babies are ready to hatch. The mother removes the debris covering the eggs, clearing the way for the newly born hatchling to make their appearance. If a hatchling is having trouble getting out of the shell, the mother will sometimes take the egg into her mouth and gently break the shell before returning the egg to its nest.
Fact 9: At best, one in five alligators will reach adulthood.
Hatchlings need all the help they can get because their survival rates are dismally low. Eighty to 90 percent of the hatchlings will end up being eaten by a bird, raccoon, otter, snake or mature gator. On the bright side, once an alligator makes it to four feet in length, only humans and larger alligators pose a threat. The lifespan of alligators in the wild is 35-50 years.
Fact 10: Alligators are outstanding mothers.
The young alligators begin catching their own food the day they are born. In most ways, however, they are quite vulnerable and remain under their mother’s protection for as long as two years. At some point, the mother will have a new brood to care for and the young alligators will leave to begin its own family. Very young alligators grow about a foot a year. During this time, the hatchlings stick together in what’s known as a “pods.” Most gators reach sexual maturity around age 10-12, when they are about six feet long.
Fact 11: Alligators grow new teeth throughout their lives.
How many teeth do alligators have? An adult alligator has between 74 and 84 teeth in its mouth. Alligators don’t chew and their teeth aren’t particularly sharp, but taken together, they are very effective. If a tooth wears down or breaks off, a new one grows to take its place. It is believed that alligators go through 2,000 to 3,000 teeth in a lifetime.
The American alligator’s bite measures 9,452 newtons or 2,125 lbs. per square inch (psi) of force. By contrast, the chomp of the average human is 890 newtons or 150 lbs. psi. However, compared to a saltwater crocodile, which shuts its mouth with 16,460 newtons or 3,700 lbs. psi of force, the alligator’s bite is not as fierce. The muscles an alligator uses to open its jaw are also far weaker than the muscles needed to snap the jaw shut. This is why alligator wrestlers, using nothing but bare hands, are able to hold a gator’s mouth shut.
Fact 12: Alligators take extended naps (a.k.a. hibernate) when it’s cold.
Everyone knows that bears hibernate, but most people don’t realize that alligators do, too. The dormant period runs from October to March for American alligators. They dig “gator holes” close to frequented waterways and take cold-weather naps. The tunnels can be quite lengthy, sometimes 50 or more feet. Once the gator moves out, other animals make use of the burrows the alligators so thoughtfully provided.
Fact 13: Alligators don’t want to hurt humans.
It’s a common question and fear for many people: Do alligators hurt humans? Much to many people’s surprise, when an alligator sees a human, its brain doesn’t immediately scream dinner! Gators aren’t hardwired for that type of aggressive behavior toward humans unless they perceive a threat.
Alligators are known to be opportunistic eaters. That’s a fancy way of saying gators are a little lazy and don’t want to work too hard for their food. Less desirable food will trump a tasty meal if the tasty meal takes a lot of work.
Fact 14: Do Alligators have night vision? Yep!
Alligators can see clear at night. They have large, demanding eyes but do alligators have night vision? They have eyes on the tops of their heads, due to the fact that they spend a lot of their time in the water. Interestingly, their large eyes provide them with clear night vision. When the sun is out during the day, their pupils will become narrower and appear as a small slash.
Fact 15: Alligators live longer in captivity.
Florida and Louisiana rank 1st and 2nd for the size of their alligator populations.The Sunshine State is home to more than one million alligators. And in 1987, the American alligator became Florida’s official state reptile. Louisiana isn’t far behind Florida in sheer numbers and the Big Easy holds the record for the largest alligator ever captured. The alligator was almost 19 feet long!
While alligators are sometimes prized for their hides or meat, Florida alligator attractions like the Everglades Holiday Park are intriguing tourist destinations that allow people to take a look at living gators in their natural habitat. Visitors can also support the species and the environment due to the fact that alligators live longer in captivity. The environment is more protected, the risks are lower and food comes on a regular basis. Exactly howmuch longer is a much-debated topic – one alligator born in captivity in 1936 is still living to this day!