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What Do Alligators Eat,  
Where Do They Live And
Who Are Their Enemies?

American alligators, along with a variety of questions about them, are probably one of the first things that come to mind when people think of the State of Florida.

Plus, if you live here, you've heard all the jokes and comments about these scaly reptiles crawling around in everyone's backyard.

What the jokers don't realize, is that this can be a very common Floridian reality.

In fact, news stories routinely are broadcast about 'gators stopping or impeding traffic even on major highways.

They also tell terrible tales of unsuspecting families finding these toothy reptiles in their backyards or of being attacked while swimming.

The facts are, the Florida alligator was here first - man came second. Of course, we've also expanded our hold on this wonderful region. In the process, we've forced this large reptile into more frequent interaction with us. Usually, the end result is not so favorable for man, his pets, and of course, eventually for even the 'gator.

American Alligator Full Length

American Alligator Stretched Out Full Length In Water

When I moved to Florida the first time, our Realtor was a native, which also happens to place him in the rare and endangered species category of 'native Floridian'.

As a boy and as a young adult, he would swim out into the ocean every day, sometimes for a mile or two as he was very athletic. He never had any fear of swimming in the ocean but he said with a warning glare, "Never, ever swim in fresh water in Florida."

We've always taken his words to heart, and we've also been extra cautious about our pets. These large reptiles can lurk in reeds or grasses at a banks edge, and be almost invisible. Dogs playing along the banks or splashing in the water are prime targets and make a tasty additional to the American alligators diet.

Even ponds in RV parks have what Floridians call their "token" 'gator. In the later afternoons, we'd sit outside with our kitties on their leashes. We'd maintain a respectable distance from ponds, and maintain vigilant watch for any toothy reptile who might burst up the bank, hungry for a feline snack.

Every year, horror stories abound of people getting drunk and falling into canals or lakes, either from shore or from their boat. The end result is that they're typically attacked quickly, or even killed by one of the many lurking Florida alligator lying in wait in the water.

Recently a story was broadcast about a drunken fellow who decided to leap into a canal and wrestle with a 'gator. Of course that situation ended quickly and badly.

Everglades Alligators

One of the best places to view this well known Floridian reptile is Everglades National Park. Within easy driving distance of the Florida Keys, especially the Upper Keys, this is a worthwhile side trip for anyone on a Florida Keys vacation.

One of the best viewing stations at the Everglades National Park is when you first enter through the Ernest Coe Visitor Center area. From here you're only a short drive to the Royal Palm Nature Center where you'll find 'gators in all sizes and in a variety of places.

Often, as you casually stroll the asphalt paths enjoying nature, you'll pass within mere feet or inches of resting 'gators. None of these sunning beasts appear to be the least bit concerned by your close proximity.

This casual disregard may also have to do with the size of humans. We're larger than what they normally consider "interesting" prey and so they're not inclined to view us as a food source.

It's also illegal to feed 'gator, because feeding them makes them unafraid of us. It also causes them to associate us with food and that in turns makes us a food source. Of course in Everglades National Park, anyone caught feeding one would be swiftly and severely punished, so these 'gators have not been spoiled by bad human behavior.

Baby Alligator on Lily Pad Beside Adult Alligator

Cute Baby Alligator On Lily Pad Beside Adult Alligator
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

The 'gators you see in the Park are also not contained by a fence or any other mechanism. They're simply in their natural habitat, lying fully exposed on the grassy banks, or partially covered by the water, relaxing and sunning themselves. Some are close to the path, while some even lie on the edges of the path. Some are so close you could reach out and touch them with a toe.

Of course that's not a good idea, as they're not as cumbersome as they appear. Yes they do tend to lumber along, but they're also capable of reaching speeds approaching 20 mph on land. If one starts to charge you, the best thing to do is run fast. The alligator can't run for any great distance plus it's lumbering motion makes it move from side to side. By running straight, you stay out of it's path, and can get further away faster.

The 'gators however are relaxed, most likely because they feed at dusk or at night. The Park is open during the daytime when the 'gators are full. Even though they're relaxed and don't appear to be particularly interested in your activities, caution must always be exercised when in an area that has or could possibly hold them.

Alligator Facts

In the wild, adults can average about 13 feet - 20 feet and weigh 600+ pounds. Despite their size, they can move quite freely on land, even with their short thick limbs,

Of course they're stellar swimmers. Their webbed toes help them claw through the water, while their long thick tails move back and forth, propelling them forward.

They also can climb, especially the young are very adept. This is why so many people report finding Florida alligators in their fenced back yards each year.

To protect children and pets, fences need to be 5 feet or taller. Even backyards that do not border water have had alligators in them, because 'gators migrate from area to area.

Alligators are prehistoric and have been thriving for 35 million years - perhaps longer. Their strong ability to survive must also stem from the fact that they're indiscriminate eaters with mighty jaws capable of crushing, ripping and tearing most anything they bite into.

Alligator basking in the sun

American Alligator Relaxing With Gaping Jaws
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Photo Credit Thomas E. Liddle Jr.

Since they're opportunistic "sit and wait" predators, the American alligators diet is quite varied. Included on their menu are deer, raccoon and other small mammals, wading birds, fish, pets, and even a drunken human from time to time.

Typical movie scenes always seem to pop to mind when picturing a 'gator with it's prey. The vicious creature mightily thrashing about with it's poor victim tightly clenched in it's cruel jaws.

However Hollywood-esque this may seem, it's actually quite accurate, at least when it comes to larger prey. When an alligator has caught a prey that is larger than can be swallowed, they do thrash and roll about, drowning the victim, and then burying it beneath a log or rock.

This allows their future meal to stay submerged, soften and rot enough so that the reptile can then rip off large sections of flesh as a meal.

When a 'gator has caught a smaller meal, it's 3000 psi crushing jaws decimate the bones or shell and then it swallows it's dinner whole.

Even though they are major predators, they also play a crucial or keystone role for the other wildlife in the area. As water begins to recede during the dry winter months, the 'gator holes they build retain water.

This means the Florida alligator has a place to live, and wildlife and fish have water to survive. This mutually beneficial act also ensures the prehistoric beast has an ongoing source of food.

Mating Habits And Raising Their Young

Spring, during April - May is 'gator mating season. The males attract females by beating their long snouts against the water and emitting deep bellowing sounds.

Once the female is attracted to the male, the mating pair perform a ritual that involves touching each other and blowing bubbles. Consummation occurs in the water and once it has occurred, the male leaves and the female begins to prepare her nest.

Unlike sea turtles who lay eggs, cover them, and then abandon the nest, female 'gators stay with and care for their nests. Once built, and the 40 - 50 eggs on average have been laid, they'll routinely move the coverings around to help control the internal temperature of the nest. They also stay close by to protect the eggs from predators, and the females help with the hatching process.

Alligator Nest With Eggs

Alligator Nest
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Photo Credit Robert L. Stone

As the first babies begin to break out of their eggs they emit a "yerping" sound which alerts the mother to the fact that the eggs are hatching. She then uncovers the nest so the babies can escape. The hatchlings break open their own shells using their temporary egg tooth at the end of their snout, but often not all the eggs begin to hatch.

To ensure that everyone emerges at the same time, the mother gently rolls the eggs around in her mouth, carefully breaking open the shell to release the hatchlings inside. The mother stays with her pod of babies throughout the year until the next breeding season begins and they're finally on their own.

Like sea turtles, the temperature of the nest determines the sex of the babies. Warmer temperatures bring forth males, cooler nest temperatures produce females. If the temperature stays moderate both sexes emerge from the same nest.

Alligator Nest With Eggs

Alligator Nest With One Hatchling And Two More Eggs To Go
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

August and September are busy months as hatchlings start to come forth. It's hard not to fall in love with a baby 'gator because they are so cute. Even small juveniles that are only several feet long are rather endearing.

The key to 'gator etiquette however is to remember that they do get big and they are very dangerous. However, when they first hatch, they are quite pretty with their temporary yellow-gold stripes that camouflage them from birds and other dangerous predators.

American Alligator Enemies
Python vs 'Gator

Being an apex predator 'gators are not usually confronted by enemies. However, that fact is changing as more non-native species are being introduced into the ecosystem.

Today, Florida is home to more than just the American alligator. It's also home to the spectacled caiman, which is a sub-species and is found in Central and South America.

This non-native species has entered into the mix just as pythons and other non-native species have.

Alligator basking in the sun

Python And Alligator Fighting, Photo Credit Lori Oberhofer, National Park Service

Irresponsible pet owners, unable or unwilling to care for their pet, eventually release then into the wild where they eventually become established.

The python has entered our ecosystem this same way and has become both a food source of the 'gator as well as a predator of it.

These two giants adopt the same method of hunt, and they seek the same prey. They're both ruthless and vicious killers and when a battle occurs between the two, there's no guarantee as to who will prove the winner.

A battle between a python and a 'gator is most likely to go 50-50 in terms of which species wins. However, a battle between a python and the endangered American crocodile will most likely result in the crocodile winning, if an encounter ever occurred.

There's a lot of things to look forward to when on a Florida Keys vacation. A variety of wildlife to discover, interesting things to see and do. Perhaps you'll even catch some spectacular photos of a 'gator or 2 or ...

Alligator Warning Sign at Everglades National Park

'Gator Warning Sign At Everglades National Park
Photo Courtesy of Teresa Smith

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