American Alligators

Natural History

A member of the crocodile family, the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is a living fossil from the Age of Reptiles, having survived on earth for 200 million years. American alligator populations reached all-time lows in the 1950s, due to market- hunting and habitat loss. However, in 1987, the alligator was pronounced fully recovered, making it one of the first endangered species success stories. Today, alligators are found throughout the Southeast, from the Virginia-Carolina border to Texas.

The alligator can be distinguished from the crocodile by its head shape and color. The crocodile has a narrower snout and has lower jaw teeth that are visible when its mouth is shut. Adult alligators are also black, while crocodiles are brownish in color. Alligators have a large, slightly rounded body, with thick limbs, a broad head, and a very powerful tail that it uses to propel itself through water. The tail accounts for half the alligator’s length, which can reach up to 14 feet in length! Alligators move very quickly in water but are generally slow-moving on land, although they can be quick for short distances.

Fish, turtles, and snails make up most of their diet but they are not picky eaters. Small animals that come to the water’s edge to drink make easy prey as well. Young alligators mostly feed on insects, crustaceans, snails, and fish. When alligators hatch from their shells, they live off of the yolk masses in their bellies for several days. The incubation period lasts about 65 days and the female alligator will protect her nest during the entire process. Alligators are the only reptile that care for their young. Young alligators begin calling for their mothers before they hatch out of their eggs. These vocalizations have two purposes: to synchronize the hatching of the siblings and to attract the mother to the nest. The mother alligator then helps the young hatch by gently lifting her babies out of the egg and then carries them to the water with her mouth. The young alligators stay with their mother and siblings and form social groups called pods. The pods offer protection, though the larger mother alligator provides the most protection. This period varies from alligator to the next; some provide protection for up to a year, though it usually lasts a few months. Alligators also don’t have vocal chords, so they make the vocalizations by sucking air in and controlling the way they let it back out. The young alligators make a “chirping” sound to call their mothers, while the larger alligators make a bellow-like sound for mating and intimidation. Small high-pitched croaking noises by newly born and young alligators can be heard; these sounds signal the mother to help her babies. If you listen closely to our smallest alligator, Rex, during a program, you might hear him make this croaking sound.

Historically, alligators were depleted as a result of market-hunting and habitat loss. The decline in numbers was so great that many people believed this unique reptile would never recover. In 1967, under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the alligator was listed as endangered. This act prohibited alligator hunting, allowing the species to rebound in numbers in many areas where it had been depleted. As numbers began to rise, many states established alligator monitoring programs. In 1987, the Fish and Wildlife Service pronounced the American alligator fully recovered and removed the animal from the list of endangered species.

Maymont has five American alligators: Rex, Cypress, and Minko, who serve as animal ambassadors, and Apex and Sobek, who are on exhibit in the Nature Center gallery.

Fun Facts

  • Reptiles have been on or plant for 200 million years
  • Alligators are found in freshwater, wetland habitats.
  • They have between 74 and 80 teeth in their mouth, which are replaced as they wear down.
  • Female alligators lay 20 to 50 goose-size eggs and are very protective of the nest during the entire incubation period.
  • An alligator den provides a safe haven for the reptile during the dry season. These can be up to 20 feet long, complete with a high ceiling air chamber to permit breathing.

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