On Saturday, Nov. 9th – Monday, Nov. 11th, 2019, all veterans, active duty military personnel and police officers receive free admission to the Key West Aquarium.* Learn More >

American Alligator

Alligator Mississippiensi

Alligators are crocodilians in the genus Alligator of the family Alligatoridae. There are two alligator species: the American and the Chinese (Alligator sinensis). The word “alligator” comes from the Spanish word for lizard, el lagarto, which is the term the early settlers of Florida used when they first encountered them. The alligators in the Key West Aquarium are usually between the ages of 1 and 3 years old and are on loan from the Alligator Farm in Homestead, FL. When the reach a certain size or the age of 3, whichever comes first, they are returned to the farm and switched for younger alligators. They reside in the Key West Aquarium to further the education of one of Florida’s most important and well represented predators.

What’s the difference between an alligator and a crocodile?

Alligators and crocodiles are in different families. Alligators have a wider, rounded U-shaped snout while crocs have a more pointed V-shaped snout. While alligators primarily live in the southeastern U.S., crocodiles are found in North, South, and Central America as well as Africa, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Crocodiles favor saltwater areas while alligators prefer freshwater and brackish water habitats. Southern Florida is the only place where alligators and crocodiles coexist.

Where are they found in the United States?

American alligators inhabit most of the southeastern United States; primarily Louisiana, Florida, and Georgia. The largest population of gators live in Gainesville, FL. They live in freshwater rivers, lakes, swamps, and marshes. There are an estimated five million American alligators in the southeastern U.S. with a quarter of the alligator population in Florida. Year after year we find that the Alligator Exhibit at the Aquarium is one of the most informative Key West Attractions because children and adults are always interested in learning information about alligators when they visit Florida.

How large can they grow?

Alligators can grow up to 800 pounds and 13 feet long on average. Females do have a tendency to be smaller than males. According to the Everglades National Park, the largest alligator ever recorded measured 17 feet, 5 inches.

What do they eat?

They eat primarily fish, birds, turtles, various mammals, and other reptiles. If the alligator is big enough it will eat larger prey such as deer, bear, razorbacks, or other alligators. If the gator has caught something too large to consume in one bite it typically drowns it by violently spinning it in the water. This is commonly called a “death roll”. It will then store it for a couple days to allow decomposition and easier consumption afterward.

How do you tell males from females?

You cannot tell a male from a female alligator unless you perform an internal examination by identifying it’s sexual organs. Judging the size of an alligator is not a reliable way to determine it’s sex.

How long do they live?

Alligators live an average of 35-50 years in the wild. They have been known to live 60-80 years in human care.

When do they reproduce?

Mating season is mid-April through May and alligators have a heightened aggression during this time. The female will build a nest in the vegetation in or around the water and lay a clutch of 20-50 eggs. Incubation is 60-65 days and hatchlings will stay with the mother for up to 2 years. Female alligators are fiercely protective of the nest and hatchlings and are especially dangerous. The temperature in the nest determines sex of the offspring. Temperatures above 93 degrees will produce males while temperatures of 86 degrees and below produce females.

How good is their sight? Smell? Hearing?

The senses of all crocodilians are quite powerful in comparison to other reptiles. They have an excellent sense of hearing and a well developed inner ear; mothers can actually hear hatchlings calling while still inside the eggs. They have extra sensory organs inside the snout for a heightened sense of smell and their vision above water can be compared to that of an owl. They also have excellent night vision and are thought to be able to see color.

What is the “growl” or “bellow” sound that the gators make?

Alligators have no vocal chords so the growl is a sound made when the gator sucks air into their lungs and blows it out to produce very loud, deep toned roars. It is used to show dominance, territorialism, and to attract mates.

Do alligators hunt people?

No, they do not. Alligators do not naturally regard humans as prey, unlike the crocodile. However, attacks on humans are on the rise due to the loss of their habitat and irresponsible behavior of humans (feeding them, approaching and harassing them) that all contribute to lessening their natural fear of man.

Are they endangered?

No, not anymore. They were removed from the endangered species list in 1987, but are still classified as a threatened species. The hunting and trapping of alligators is only legal through proper permits and strictly enforced quotas.

Living With Alligators in Florida

Florida, the 27th state, is the most southeasterly state in the entire United States. As locals and tourists continue to flock to the region to live, retire and vacation, more and more homes and resorts spring into action. As the population increases, the swamplands, once patrolled mostly by reptiles and nature’s creatures, become less and less and the possibility of animal encounters increases. The state of Florida presently has over 20 million people and over one million alligators. When it comes to encounters with alligators, the best possible advice is to try your best not to have those encounters by staying a safe distance of at least 50 feet away. If one bites you, the advice is to make the most noise possible and work hard to get away. Use force if necessary. Don’t approach to take selfies; don’t approach to check if it’s alive; and if you’re headed into any of Florida’s many fresh water streams, lakes or springs, take great care – alligators are often around even if you can’t see them.

Alligator Facts

  • American alligators were once considered almost extinct
  • By the 1950s, endless hunting had almost wiped out the population
  • By the 1980s, the population managed to recover; gators were removed from the endangered species list
  • Although confrontations occur, attacks on humans by alligators are still considered rare
  • Homes and communities now lie on edges of alligator habitats or have water that alligators seek
  • Alligators are often drawn to storm water ponds of all sorts
  • Regardless of whether it’s natural or man-made, if there’s a body of water in Florida, there could be an alligator in it
  • Alligators have a preference for fresh water and sometimes brackish water
  • Statistical data suggests that the probability of being killed by an alligator is low
  • Since the early 1970s, there have been 23 fatalities and under 400 unprovoked bites by alligators in Florida
  • Mating season for alligators is late April through early June
  • Females build their nest and lay on average 20-45 eggs in June/July
  • Eggs traditionally hatch from the middle of August through the beginning of September
  • Egg, hatchling and nest survival is often stunted by predators (like raccoons) and flooding
  • Alligators rely on external heat sources in order to regulate their body temperature (which is why they can often be found lying in the sun or on a hot surface)
  • 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit is the range of temperature when gators are most active
  • Limited feeding takes place during temperatures less than 70 degrees Fahrenheit
  • The hibernation or dormant period for gators is often when the temperature is below 55 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Alligator classification: reptiles (direct ancestors: dinosaurs)
  • An alligator’s heart has four chambers (most reptiles have 3)
  • The American alligator is known as the largest reptile in North America
  • Alligators are the official state reptile of Florida
  • The alligator is the mascot of the University of Florida

Advice From The Experts

Jack Hanna

Director Emeritus of Columbia Zoo/Aquarium

  • Alligators can go six months a year without eating
  • Alligators migrate far distances (they walk on roads, crawl through pipes, slug through swamplands)
  • It is difficult to keep alligators contained to one space
  • Alligators mostly ignore humans and are often unsettled/frightened by them
  • If hungry, and humans are in the water, alligators may go for the ankles of that nearby human (regardless of age, weight or size)
  • An alligator is able to outrun all human creatures within the first 20-30 feet of exiting the water – making it very difficult for humans to outrun alligators
  • It is difficult to spot an alligator in the water or on land if it’s in a secluded area
  • Alligators watch from above the water but they listen and feel vibrations of prey from below the water
  • Alligators are known to lie on tar roads due to the hot surface
  • Alligators are prevalent all over Florida
  • If bit by an alligator, make a lot of noise, use force, poke eyes

According to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation

  • Alligator diet includes prey that is easy to find and available often
  • Adult alligators eat snakes, turtles, smaller mammals, small birds, large/rough fish
  • Young alligators eat mostly insects, smaller fish, other amphibian creatures/invertebrates
  • Alligators have been known to eat other alligators and dead animals
  • Female alligators typically remain under 10 feet long
  • Male alligators can be much larger than females and over 10 feet in length

Tips

  • Do not feed alligators
  • If taking a photo or looking at an alligator, remain at least 50 feet away in distance
  • Do not swim in areas where it’s a known alligator community
  • Never go near an alligator nest
  • Never touch or go near an alligator on a road even if it looks dead
  • Stay away from water at night and definitely stay away during the breeding season
  • If you’re in fresh or stagnant water (natural or man-made) in Florida, know that alligators could be anywhere

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