Alligator, a large reptile that inhabits swamps, rivers, lakes, and marshes. There are two species of alligators. The American alligator is found from North Carolina south to Florida and west to central Texas. The Chinese alligator is found in the lower valley of China’s Yangtze River. The Chinese alligator is smaller than the American alligator, but otherwise the two species are similar. The caiman is a closely related animal.
Alligator skin makes a handsome, durable leather and is widely used for handbags, wallets, shoes, belts, and watch bands. In the United States the meat of the tail is eaten in stews and soups. Hunting once brought the American alligator close to extinction. Since the 1960’s, hunting has been strictly regulated, allowing American alligator populations to recover and thrive. Most commercial alligator products come from alligators raised on alligator farms. The Chinese alligator is endangered due to loss of its habitat and pollution of its remaining range.
The American alligator grows up to nineteen feet long and weighs 600 pounds.
American alligators live in watery areas of the southeastern United States. They live in lakes, ponds, and marshes. They live in rivers, creeks, and swamps. They even live in canals.
Alligators often dig burrows to live in. They use their mouths and clawed feet to rip and dig the earth. They sweep away loose mud and dirt with their tails. A burrow might be a hole or a tunnel in a mud bank. It might be a ’gator hole dug into the bottom of a pond.
’Gator holes are an important part of a swamp. Mud and plants pushed aside by the alligator become rich soil where new, healthy plants grow. During a drought, or dry period, a ’gator hole still holds water. It is home to both the alligator and its young. Fish, birds, and other animals live in and near the ’gator hole, too. They may stay until the rains return.
In the summer alligators sun themselves on land or float in water. They swim with their tails. Their walk is awkward and slow, but they can run rapidly for short distances. In the winter they hibernate in mud burrows.
In the spring, the female buries 30 to 60 eggs, each about three inches (7.5 cm) long, in a nest made of decaying plant material. At the end of a 9- to 10-week incubation period, the unhatched young make a peeping noise and the female uncovers the nest. The young are eight to nine inches (20 to 23 cm) long at birth and grow rapidly until they reach adulthood (at about 10 years of age). Alligators usually live about 50 years.
Baby alligators hatch and peep until the female uncovers the nest.
Alligators have large stomachs, and eat enormous amounts of food during the summer. Young alligators feed mainly on insects, tadpoles, and frogs. Adults feed mainly on fish, but will eat almost any aquatic animal. They will also eat land animals, including humans, dogs, and cats, that they catch at the water’s edge.
Adult alligators occasionally make a short, grunting noise, which is repeated several times. Angry adults make a hissing noise and the males often bellow or roar, especially during mating season.
Alligators spend a lot of time doing nothing—both in and out of the water. By doing nothing, alligators control their body temperatures.
Since alligators are cold-blooded, they often lie in the sun to warm up. This is called basking. To keep from getting too hot, an alligator gapes, or lies with its mouth open. An alligator gapes for the same reason a dog pants—to let heat escape from its body.
A crocodilian’s heart has four chambers. These chambers help control an alligator’s temperature. If an alligator begins to overheat, more blood flows near the surface of the skin. The warm blood gives off its heat to the cooler surroundings.
Of course, an alligator can always move into the shade or cool water to beat too much heat.
Alligators can’t breathe underwater. But they can stay there for an hour or more. When an alligator submerges, or goes underwater, its heart slows down. The alligator doesn’t have to breathe as often, but the heart still pumps blood to important organs, such as the brain.
Like many animals, alligators have two eyelids to protect each eye. But when an alligator submerges, a third eyelid covers each eye. This eyelid is clear. The clear eyelids act like swim goggles.
Flaps of skin cover an alligator’s ears at all times. But when an alligator submerges, special flaps close off its nostrils and the back of its throat. Nostril flaps keep the alligator from breathing in water. The throat flap lets an alligator open its mouth to catch prey without swallowing water.
Alligators are excellent swimmers. But they don’t swim with their legs. They swim by sweeping their tails from side to side.
Alligators move three different ways on land. They high walk, belly walk, and belly run.
Alligators high walk when they aren’t in a hurry. In a high walk, an alligator’s body is up off the ground. The alligator walks like a mammal, one leg at a time. Alligators move slowly when they high walk. But they can high walk for long distances.
When an alligator belly walks, it moves like a lizard. It twists from side to side and pushes the earth with its legs and feet. Alligators belly walk to cross muddy ground or to slide quickly into water.
To escape danger, alligators sometimes belly run. This is just a faster belly walk, with the alligator’s belly off the ground. Alligators can belly run only for short distances.