Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park

Species Spotlight : American Alligator

December 17, 2009, 10:48 am
Alligators are among the most popular sights to see in Everglades National Park. They’re also an important part of the Everglades ecosystem and are considered a keystone species of the park.
 
These reptilian beasts can be seen wallowing in the swampy “alligator holes” throughout the park, but you are just as likely to encounter one sauntering across the sidewalk.
 
American alligators have been described as “living fossils,” from the age of reptiles, having survived on earth for 200 million years. They range throughout the southeastern United States, primarily inhabiting freshwater swamps and marshes.
 
Characteristics
These ancient creatures are usually black, but can also be brown, grey or olive colored depending on their environment. The dark color of the coarse scales that cover their bodies helps to absorb sunlight to warm their blood.
 
Adult male alligators can grow to be 15 feet long and the maximum length for females is approximately 10 feet. However, both sexes tend to be smaller in South Florida.
 
The alligator can be distinguished from the crocodile by its head shape and color. The crocodile has a narrower snout, and unlike the alligator, has lower jaw teeth that are visible even when its mouth is shut. If you are viewing them at a distance and can’t distinguish their teeth, crocodiles tend to be more brownish in color.
 
Park Habitat
The alligator’s greatest value to the marsh and other animals within it are the “gator holes” that many adults create and expand through the years. An alligator uses its mouth and claws to uproot vegetation to clear out a space; then, shoving with its body and slashing with its powerful tail, it wallows out a depression that stays full of water in the wet season and holds water after the rains stop. During the dry season, and particularly during extended droughts, gator holes provide vital water for fish, insects, crustaceans, snakes, turtles, birds, and other animals in addition to the alligator itself.
 
Sometimes, the alligator may expand its gator hole by digging beneath an overhanging bank to create a hidden den. After tunneling as far as 20 feet, it enlarges the end, making a chamber with a ceiling high enough above water level to permit breathing. This is not the alligator’s nest but merely a place for the reptile to survive the dry season and winter.
 
Alligators are most commonly seen in Everglades National Park during the dry season, which is usually between November and April. The best places to see them are near Shark Valley, in the northern section of the park and along the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm.
 
Diet
Alligators depend on wetlands—and in some ways wetlands depend on them. As apex predators, they help control the rodent population and prey on other animals that might overtax the marshland vegetation. They will eat just about anything, but primarily consume fish, turtles, and snails. Small animals that come to the water’s edge to drink also make easy prey.
 
Gator Fun Facts
  • The name alligator is an anglicized form of el lagarto the Spanish term for "lizard," the name by which early Spanish explorers and settlers in Florida called the alligator.
     
  • Baby alligators have an egg tooth that helps them get out of their egg during hatching time. This small, sharp, cranial protuberance helps them break or tear through the egg's surface.
     
  • Alligators have hollow teeth that fall out easily when broken, allowing new teeth to grow in.
     
  • Most of the muscle in an alligator's jaw is intended for biting and gripping prey. The muscles that close the jaws are extremely powerful, exerting nearly a ton of force. However, the muscles for opening their jaws are relatively weak. So weak, in fact, that a simple strip of duct tape may be used to keep their mouths shut.
     
  • These weak mouth-opening muscles also mean that alligators don’t chew their food. Instead, they chomp down on prey and swallow it whole. If they can’t get it all down in one gulp, they’ll wait for it to rot or swing it around wildly until bite-size chunks are torn off.
Safety
Despite their fearsome appearance, alligators are normally wary of people; unprovoked attacks on humans are rare. Those habituated to people as a source of food, however, may be more aggressive. As with all wild animals, it is necessary to keep a safe distance.