For some incredible photos of a couple huge alligators arguing over lunch at Myakka State Park, see this week’s WaterLine. If you’re not getting WaterLine in your paper, call 941-206-1300 and add it to your subscription for just $1 a month.
It seems like every tourist who comes to Florida wants to get a look at a gator. Those who arrive in winter are fortunate, because cooler temperatures mean you’re far more likely to see an alligator — if you know where and when to look.
Gators are one of the animals most strongly identified with the Sunshine State. In fact, they’re so Florida that many people are surprised to learn that alligators are native throughout the southeastern U.S., from North Carolina all the way to Oklahoma. They don’t do well in long periods of freezing weather, though they have no trouble with short freezes, sometimes even sticking their snouts through the ice to breathe.
Alligators and their crocodile cousins are ancient creatures, having first appeared more than 80 million years ago when pterosaurs, Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops shared their living space. Much of the earth was warmer and wetter then, and both temperate alligators and tropical crocodiles lived over a larger area. Today, alligators live in only two places: Our familiar American alligator and a dwarf Chinese species, which has curiously armored skin, even on the belly.
When you finally see your first alligator, you might be surprised to discover they’re not bright green. Gators are actually a charcoal gray color, though they look almost black when they’re wet. Young animals are brightly colored with yellow bands, which fade with age and disappear in mature adults. Environmental conditions may affect a gator’s coloration: Animals living in tannin-stained water are exceptionally dark, and gators living in ponds with a lot of algae growth may begin growing algae directly on their hides, turning their backs a dark mossy green. Rarely, other colors are reported. In 2010, an orange alligator was photographed in Nokomis. It may have been living in a rusty culvert, or it may have been dyed. Albino and leucistic (all white with pink or blue eyes, respectively) animals have also been found, but are very uncommon.
Their normal dark color is a key to spotting gators in winter. Like all cold-blooded (or poikilothermic, if you want to be fancy) animals, they rely on the environment to regulate their body temperature. Alligators function best when they’re warm, so the dark hide is an adaptation that enables them to soak up more infrared energy from sunlight. Just like a dark car heats up faster in the sun than a white one, a gray-skinned gator warms up more quickly than a pale one would.
So if you’re really keen to see one, pick a chilly but sunny morning. Select an open shoreline that has an open view to the east and that glorious heat-ball in the sky. The gators have been cold all night, and they’ll haul themselves up onto the bank where they can bask without the cool water stealing their precious warmth. When it’s extra cold, they’ll stay in the sun until it sets or something spooks them into the water.
Most of the gators you’re likely to see are young animals between 3 and 5 feet long and from 4 to 8 years old. Smaller alligators tend to live in smaller bodies of water, where they can find plenty to eat without becoming prey for their parents, which will happily eat them at this stage of life. Once they’re big enough to have a little confidence, they start looking for a place to call home. The lucky ones will grow up to be fascinating animals.
During the mating season, which starts in early spring, large male gators will often go in search of mates. Those animals will roam far and wide and may end up almost anywhere, sometimes far from water. The rainy season refugees, by contrast, will almost always be found in or very near water.
After mating, a female alligator builds a nest of decaying vegetation. She guards it and carefully monitors the temperature, sometimes adding or removing plant material to keep the temperature just right. Unlike in mammals, the gender of a developing gator embryo is not determined genetically; rather, it depends on the incubation temperature. Eggs incubated at 93 degrees or above become male. If incubated at 86 degrees or below, the same eggs hatch female. If the temperature is kept in the middle, the gender split will be more even, and it appears this is what mother alligators attempt to do.
For the first several months of life, young gators are almost always found in the company of their mothers. Mom offers protection from predators for a while, but the little ones are responsible for their own suppers from day one. If it feels threatened, a baby alligator produces a throaty squeak. This sound will bring Mama in a hurry, and she won’t be in a good mood. If you learn to imitate this call, you can bring gators of almost any size closer to you. Be careful what you ask for, though — they may want to get really, really close. Eventually, the female will become aggressive toward the young animals, forcing them to disperse.
Alligators are not picky about what they eat — a trait that gets them in trouble. In the wild, gators prey on snails, insects and other invertebrates when young, eventually graduating to turtles, birds, raccoons and whatever else they can chomp in their very powerful jaws. Gator teeth are for grabbing, not chewing. Small prey items are eaten whole. Bigger animals may be left to rot, as they are easier to tear apart once properly aged.
Because they’ll eat almost anything, alligators are highly susceptible to being fed by humans. Although this may seem cute when they’re babies, it’s not so cute when an adult gator looks at people as a food source. Alligators that have been fed can become very bold and aggressive, and may attack people or pets.
This also ends poorly for the gator, who ends up being labeled a nuisance animal and is killed by a state-licensed trapper. The meat and skin are harvested for use. Both are luxury items today, though gator meat was once a staple of poor southern pioneer families. The leather is used to make shoes and purses. Only the buttery-soft bellies are used for this purpose, as the skin on the back is studded with bony plates called osteoderms. From the 1940s through the early ‘60s, millions of wild alligators were killed for their hides. That came to an end in 1967, when gators became one of the first animals to be listed as endangered under a precursor to the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
If it can avoid becoming a handbag and gator nuggets, an alligator can live to be more than a half-century old and grow to enormous proportions. Females commonly attain 9 feet and 200 pounds; males routinely reach 13 feet and nearly a quarter-ton. Adult alligators have no predators except man and each other.
Today, the population has rebounded strongly and alligator hunting is allowed, though strictly regulated. However, it is still unlawful to molest or harm a gator outside of a legal hunt. That includes intentional hooking, so keep your baits away from the gators. But there’s no problem with you watching and admiring these stately reptiles from a distance that will keep both you and the gators out of harm’s way. Alligators are a near-mythical part of Florida’s allure, and we’re happy to have them and the tourists they bring.