Alligators are reptiles, that belong to the order Crocodilia.
The name “alligator” is probably an anglicized form of el lagarto, the Spanish term for “the lizard”, which early Spanish explorers and settlers in Florida called the alligator.
There are two species of alligators: the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) and the Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis).
American alligators are found in the southeast United States: all of Florida and Louisiana; the southern parts of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi; coastal South and North Carolina; East Texas, the southeast corner of Oklahoma, and the southern tip of Arkansas. They are usually found in freshwater, slow-moving rivers. They are also found in swamps, marshes, and lakes.
Chinese alligators are found in only the Yangtze River valley and parts of adjacent provinces and is extremely endangered, with only a few dozen believed to be left in the wild. Indeed, far more Chinese alligators live in zoos around the world than can be found in the wild.
An average adult American alligator’s weight and length is 360 kg (790 lb) and 4 m (13.1 ft), but they sometimes grow to 4.4 m (14 ft) long and weigh over 450 kg (990 lb). The largest ever recorded, found in Louisiana, measured 5.84 m (19.2 ft).
Though often confused with various crocodile species, the American alligator can be distinguished by its rounded snout, and by the fact that when the jaws are closed, none of the lower teeth are visible. The body is armoured with thick scales, and bears a long, powerful tail, as well as sturdy limbs with webbed toes, which help to propel this species through the water. The eyes and snout are positioned on the top of the head, enabling the American alligator to breathe and watch for prey, while the rest of the body is submerged.
The Chinese alligator differs from its American counterpart in subtle ways. It’s smaller, the head is more robust and its snout is slightly upturned. The eyelids of the Chinese alligator have a bony plate that is missing in the American alligator. The American alligator also lacks the bony belly plates, or
osteoderms, of the Chinese alligator.
Adult alligators are black or dark olive-brown with white undersides, while juveniles have strongly contrasting white or yellow marks which fade with age.
The Chinese alligator has 72-76 teeth, whereas the American alligator has 74-80 teeth. Alligators are polyphyodonts (animal whose teeth are continuously replaced). An alligator can go through 3,000 teeth in a lifetime.
Alligators have extremely strong jaw muscles, which enable them to bite and grip their prey.
The eyes of a large alligator will glow red and those of a smaller will glow green when a light is shined on them. This fact can be used to find alligators in the dark.
Alligators are nocturnal creatures, which means they are more active at night. Primarily they do their hunting during this time as well; usually around dusk or sometime during the night. They carry out the process of hunting by laying motionless and waiting for their prey.
Alligators are opportunistic feeders, eating almost anything they can catch. When young, alligators eat fish, insects, snails, crustaceans, and worms. As they mature, progressively larger prey is taken, including larger fish such as gar, turtles, and various mammals, particularly coypu and muskrat, as well as birds, deer, and other reptiles. Their stomachs also often contain gizzard stones.
Large male alligators are solitary, territorial reptiles. Smaller alligators can often be found in large numbers in close proximity to each other. The largest of the species (both males and females), will defend prime territory whereas smaller alligators have a higher tolerance of other alligators within a similar size class.
The mating season is in late spring. In April and May, alligators form so-called “bellowing choruses”. Large groups of animals bellow together for a few minutes a few times a day, usually one to three hours after sunrise.
In summer, the female builds a nest of vegetation where the decomposition of the vegetation provides the heat needed to incubate the eggs. The sex of the offspring is determined by the temperature in the nest and is fixed within seven to 21 days of the start of incubation. Incubation temperatures of 30 °C (86 °F) or lower produce a clutch of females; those of 93 °F (34 °C) or higher produce entirely males.
Newly hatched young are very vulnerable. Their mother protects them from predators, which include raccoons, bobcats, birds, and even other alligators. The young alligators stay with their mother for about a year.
The average lifespan of an alligator is about 50 years in the wild.
The Chinese alligator is considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).
In 1999, it was estimated by the Wildlife Conservation Society that there were only around 150 individuals left in the wild. This coincided with a reversal of its decline in the wild, the population stabilizing between 1998 and 2003, followed by a slow and ongoing increase.
The Chinese alligator is quite prolific in captivity and the estimated captive population exceeds 10,000 individuals.
The American alligator is listed as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Historically, hunting had decimated their population, and the American alligator was listed as an endangered species by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Subsequent conservation efforts have allowed their numbers to increase and the species was removed from the list in 1987.
Alligators are raised commercially for their meat and their skin, which is used for bags and shoes. They also provide economic benefits through the ecotourism industry. Visitors may take swamp tours, in which alligators are a feature. Their most important economic benefit to humans may be the control of coypu and muskrats.
Alligator meat is also consumed by humans. In 2010, the Archbishop of New Orleans ruled that for purposes of Catholic church discipline in relation to abstention from meat, the flesh of the alligator is characterised as fish.
Since the late 1880s, alligator wrestling has been a source of entertainment for some. Created by the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes prior to the arrival of Europeans, this tourism tradition continues to persist despite criticism from animal rights activists.
The American alligator is the largest reptile in the Western Hemisphere.
The American alligator is the official state reptile of three states: Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi.