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Species Description

American Alligator

Alligator mississippiensis


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Classification

Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Crocodylia
Family: Alligatoridae

Description

The young are dark grey to black, striped with bright yellow which fades with age. Adult alligators are dark grey to black. This is the largest reptile in North America. Adults range from 1.8 - 4.9 m (6 - 16 ft). The record is 5.8 m (19 ft 2 in). Males grow larger than females. The snout is broad. The large fourth tooth is not visible when the mouth is closed.

Life Cycle

Courting and mating occur in the spring. Both sexes may be territorial. In the swamps and sloughs of southern Georgia, the male's bellow is a common spring sound as he courts the female or threatens other males. Fertilization is internal. Thirty to sixty leathery eggs are laid one to three weeks after mating. The nest of debris may reach 7 feet in diameter and 3 feet in height. The eggs are laid in the center, and the rotting of the vegetation helps to warm the eggs during development. Sex of the young is determined by the average temperature of the nest. High temperatures yield males; low temperatures result in females. This temperature-dependent sexual development of the young is found in all members of this family. The female guards the nest during incubation. Hatching is in nine weeks. The young may stay with the female for up to one year. Mother alligators are very protective. It is unwise to disturb nests or young. Maturity is reached in 4 - 8 years. The American Alligator may live for several decades.

Natural History

The American Alligator is carnivorous and will eat anything it can catch and swallow. This includes fish, amphibians, smaller alligators, snakes, waterfowl, raccoons, and wild pigs. This species occurs in a variety of habitats, from large rivers to swamps and marshes. It prefers shallow fresh water with shoreline vegetation and mud or sand banks. It often basks on the shore during the day, but will hunt both day and night. It also digs deep "'gator holes" that can serve as ecologically important refuges for aquatic organisms when the water is low.

Range

American Alligator Region Map The American Alligator is found in appropriate habitats throughout the Gulf and Lower Atlantic Coastal Plain and in Florida. This species is found throughout southern Georgia up to the Fall Line and occasionally past it. It has also sometimes been released outside its known native range.

Conservation Status

The American Alligator was hunted to very low numbers in the 1940s to 1960s. It was placed on the Endangered list, hunting was prohibited, and today populations have rebounded. It is now listed as a Threatened species, but populations have recovered in some states to the point that there is a limited harvest. It is felt that the populations are not yet large enough to permit a regular harvest in Georgia. The prime threats to its survival are habitat reduction and over-hunting.

Similar Species

No other close relative is found in Georgia. The American Crocodile occurs chiefly in salty or brackish waters from southern Florida to South America; it has a tapering snout and (except in small individuals) the fourth lower jaw tooth protrudes consipcuously upward near its snout. The Spectacled Caiman is not native to the United States, but is locally thriving in extreme southern Florida; it has a curved, bony, crosswise ridge in front of its eyes.