The American alligator, also known as Mississippi alligator or Alligator mississippiensis belongs to the family Alligatoridae. It is one of the two living species of alligators found in the world. The other alligator is the Chinese alligator or Alligator sinensis. The word alligator is derived from the Spanish 'el lagarto', which means lizard.
According to estimates, this species is more than 150 million years old, and was the contemporary of dinosaurs, which became extinct almost 65 million years ago. This alligator is largely found in freshwater habitats, like swamps, rivers, lakes, and marshes of the Southeastern United States. It received the title of Official State Reptile of Florida in 1987. It is also the mascot of the University of Florida.
The average male alligator grows to a length of 3.4 to 4.5 meter (around 13 to 17 feet long), while the length of the average female alligator is usually 2.5 to 3 meter (9 to 11 feet long). The American alligator has a large, slightly rounded body, covered with coarse scales.
Its head is large with striking eyes and nostrils, and powerful jaws with pointed teeth. The huge tail accounts for nearly half of its length, which is used by this giant reptile to float in water and defend itself from other animals. The color of the skin is generally olive, brown, gray, or nearly black, but the ventral surface is usually pale. The skin of the young alligators (known as hatchlings) is typically black with yellow stripes.
Food and Habitat
Alligators are carnivores, and they mainly eat fish, birds, snakes, mammals, turtles, and sometimes dead animals. Hatchlings or young alligators mainly feed on insects, tadpoles, frogs, and small fish.
Like any other alligator, the American alligator is a freshwater animal, and it thrives in wetlands like swamps, marshes, bogs, lakes, and rivers. However, this alligator can withstand saline water to an extent and hence, it can be seen near brackish water bodies like mangrove swamps at times.
But still, wetlands are crucial for the survival of this alligator. It constructs burrows in the wetlands for shelter, where it hibernates during winter. This alligator is mainly found in the regions of Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas.
It attains sexual maturity at the age of 8 to 13 years. Spring (April and May) is the time when alligators mate. The male alligator attracts the female by bellowing. An interesting fact about this alligator is that it uses infrasound for this purpose. As alligators do not have vocal cords, they suck in air into the lungs and then blow it out at intervals for making their characteristic low rumbling roars.
The average number of eggs laid by a female alligator vary between 25 to 60. After mating, the alligators build nests by using vegetation, mud, and leaves. After laying the eggs in the nests, the mother alligators cover them with mulch, which helps keep the eggs warm and facilitate their hatching. The sex of the young alligators depends on the temperature at which the eggs are hatched. The eggs hatched at temperatures between 90 to 93°F usually become males, while those hatched between 82 to 86°F become females.
Intermediate temperature ranges are found to produce a mix of male and female alligators. The young alligators are generally 6 to 8 inches in length, and they become independent almost immediately. So, they start to find food on their own, but stay with their mothers for about two years. The average life span of an American alligator is about 30-35 years, but it can live more than 50 years in captivity.
Recovery from Extinction
This alligator was hunted for its skin, as alligator skin is used in making leather. It was also poached for its flesh. The large-scale poaching coupled with the loss of habitat reduced the population of this alligator to such an extent that it was on the brink of extinction in 1970s.
It was declared an endangered species by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The government took measures, like declaring alligator hunting as an unlawful activity and creating large commercial farms for alligator breeding, in order to protect this reptile. These measures have succeeded in protecting the American alligator from extinction, and increasing its population.
The alligator industry has emerged as a big and profitable industry in the United States. The industry is mainly concentrated in Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Louisiana. These four states together produce approximately 45,000 alligator hides annually. The market for alligator meat is also developing rapidly as a million dollar industry.
Despite all the endeavors taken for the preservation of the American alligator, it is facing many problems, like consistently high temperature and low availability of food, mainly in Florida. As a result, delay in attaining sexual maturity and reduction in length, have been observed, which call for immediate attention. Though this alligator is no longer an endangered animal, it needs constant protection, not only for its own survival but for maintaining balance in the ecosystem as well.