American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) inhabit the southeastern
United States. Once a federally listed endangered species, American
alligators have recovered in many areas. The species is still federally
listed as threatened because it looks like the American crocodile,
which is endangered. The species belongs to the order Crocodylia and
the family Alligatoridae.
Although they are primarily freshwater animals, alligators will
venture into brackish salt water. Alligators live in swampy areas,
rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. On the Savannah River Site, alligators
inhabit the Savannah River, its swamp and tributaries, and Par Pond
and other reservoirs on the site.
Alligators are active year around, but they are most active in the
warmer months in Georgia and South Carolina. With the start of their
breeding season in May, males "bellow" to females and
other males in the area. By June, pairs have mated, and females
begin building mound nests out of marsh reeds or other vegetation.
during late June or early July, females lay between 20 and 60 eggs.
The hard-shelled, white eggs are about 3 inches long and resemble
goose eggs. The mother defends the nest against predators throughout
the incubation period, about 65 days. When the eggs are ready to
hatch, the mother alligator digs into the nest mound, opens any
eggs that have not hatched and carries the young down to the water.
Females sometimes aggressively defend their young for more than
Alligators are opportunistic feeders; adults eat fish, turtles,
wading birds, snakes, frogs and small mammals they find near the
shoreline of their habitat. Young alligators feed on small fish
and aquatic insects, but in turn, they can be food for raccoons,
crabs, various types of wading birds and even fish.
alligators that are killed or removed from the area cannot defend
their nests or young, and the hatchlings often are doomed. If the
young escape predation and can find enough food, they may grow between
3 and 8 inches in length yearly. When they reach lengths of about
6 feet, they are considered adults.
Scientists at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory have studied
American alligators on the Savannah River Site for more than 25
years. They have recorded population sizes, distribution and trends;
animal sizes, sexes, activity periods, growth rates and reproductive
efforts; diet, nutrition and energetics; responses to thermal effluent
from reactors into cooling reservoirs; uptake of radionuclides;
genetic patterns and the conservation of the species.
The largest recorded American alligator was 19 feet in length.
Alligators and their relatives are the last of the living reptiles
that were closely related to dinosaurs.
Alligators and crocodiles are related. But alligators have rounded
snouts; most crocodile species have longer, pointed snouts.
Also, crocodiles occur only in tropical and subtropical areas
(only south Florida in the United States). Alligators, on the
other hand, live in somewhat colder climates.
Alligators have a strong homing instinct and sometimes will
protect their "territory" from other alligators.
On the Atlantic Coast, they occur from Florida to coastal North
Carolina. Alligators are also found in the Upper Coastal Plain,
which includes the Central Savannah River Area of Georgia and South
Carolina. In South Carolina, alligators have been recorded to reach
lengths of more than 13 feet.
feed alligators. This is a most important rule. Providing food
for these wild animals not only makes them bolder and encourages
them to seek out people, it also alters their natural diet in
an unhealthy way.
Keep your distance. Although they may look slow and awkward,
these animals are extremely powerful and can move with a startling
burst of speed on land over short distances. A safe distance
from an adult alligator is about 60 feet.
Never disturb nests or small alligators. Some female alligators
protect their young and may become aggressive if provoked. A
baby alligator should never be captured, even if the mother
is not visible. She may be watching you and decide to take action
to protect her baby.
Keep your pets and children away from alligators. Large alligators
do not recognize the difference between domestic pets and wild
food sources. When they are hungry, alligators act on their
hunting instinct and might attempt to feed on your house pet
if given the opportunity.
Don't swim in areas that are known alligator habitats. Always
be careful around water. Splashing can attract alligators that
think a prey animal is injured. They may act on instinct and
attack. Or, a protective female may believe her young or eggs
are threatened and take defensive action. Be cautious when fishing
in waters with alligators, as some will not hestitate to grab
a hooked fish or eat the fish on a stringer.
"Alligators are fascinating creatures and should by all means
be enjoyed as part of the natural beauty of our region. But please
remember that they are wild animals and should be respected as such.
Once they become too familiar with people, they lose their fear
of humans, necessitating their removal from the area for the safety
of everyone concerned. A few precautions on our part can help both
humans and alligators co-exist safely."