We’ve all heard about the importance of conserving energy – but there is one animal at the Reid Park Zoo that has been an expert in this field for about 200 million years. In fact, he’s so proficient at conserving his own energy that the two most common reactions from Zoo visitors are “Is that real?” and “Is it alive???” Yes and yes!
The American Alligator is one of the first creatures to greet guests when they enter the Reid Park Zoo (well, “greet” might be a little bit of an exaggeration), and that’s only fitting, since they’re one of the most ancient animals still living on earth. Often called a “living fossil,” the American Alligator is the largest reptile native to North America, and they really are a paragon of adaptation and survival. Amazingly, they have not changed much for the last 200 million years, though they’re a bit smaller than their mega-reptile ancestors. They have already overcome the “alligator shoes” craze of the 1960s, where they were hunted almost to extinction. Fortunately, the states where they lived got wise and began to protect them, and the species came roaring back. But now they’re in trouble again – more about that later.
Bayou, the splendid American Alligator
Bayou came to the Reid Park Zoo in 2018 as a middle-aged gator – age 25. What is amazing is that he had lived with many other alligators prior to arriving here (where he enjoys the preferred solitary life of his kind in the wild) but he still has ALL of his toes! Since Alligators prefer living alone in the wild, when they’re placed in close quarters with others of their kind, they squabble, bicker, and nip at each other’s toes frequently .
Tucsonans are fascinated to see a real “swamp creature” in our midst, and it’s likely Reid Park Zoo guests will be able to get a good view of him sitting completely motionless underwater. You can clearly see his 9-feet of thick scales and his smiling upper teeth – so many of them! – which are visible even when his mouth is closed. Since alligators can continue growing all their lives, he might even be bigger the next time you see him. Anyway, it’s likely you’ll see him in the exact same position for quite a while, because Alligators can stay underwater for 30 minutes, easily. He will come up for a breath eventually, but likely just surfacing his raised nostrils, not his whole head. On warmer days, though, or when his keepers call him with the promise of treats, he’ll obligingly amble out of his pool (heated during the cooler months, of course!) and come onto the grass to bask in the sun.
They’re really not that hungry
American Alligators live naturally from Florida up to North Carolina, and also along the Gulf Coast into Texas. They thrive in swampy freshwater areas, streams, lakes and ponds. You’ve no doubt seen many news stories about them appearing on golf courses, wandering into people’s yards, or being washed into new territories by floods or other catastrophic weather events. Human development of their home territories has greatly increased the number of human-gator interactions, but it’s important to know that the American Alligator is way less aggressive than his cousin, the Crocodile. It’s true that Alligators are able to run up to 30 miles per hour, but only for 11 seconds or so (remember – conserving energy is the name of the game). And they are not interested in eating you – you’re way too large and besides, they only need to eat once or twice a month in the wild. Studies have shown that a 100-pound dog will eat more in a year than an 800-pound alligator!
Still, as with all wildlife, it’s best to keep your distance. They may be fascinating and appear to be smiling at you, but you really don’t want to get anywhere near that mouth. The American Alligator spends all that time doing nothing to conserve his energy for lunging at prey such as fish, turtles, snakes, frogs, birds and small mammals. A gator has between 75-80 teeth in his mouth, and because of his hunting method – lunging, snapping the jaws down, and then thrashing his head to subdue the larger prey, he’s always breaking and losing teeth. But that’s no problem, because like sharks, the Alligator can constantly grow new teeth throughout his lifetime – up to 3,000. Then there’s the strength of those jaws clamping down – researchers have measured their bite force to exert somewhere between 2,000-2,900 pounds per square inch!
Alligators and the Environment
The American Alligator is a keystone species, which means that in the wild, they create changes to the landscape that benefit many smaller animals (elephants do this to their landscapes as well). In cooler weather, these giant reptiles dig “gator holes,” which fill up with shallow pools of water, and there they enter brumation, a sort of semi-hibernation. When warmer weather returns, the alligators abandon the holes, which then are used by snakes, turtles, fish, and other nearby creatures.
There is one thing, besides its size and amazing energy efficiency, which distinguishes the American Alligator from most other reptiles around the world. The truth is, most reptile females bury their eggs and walk away; what happens to their young after hatching is not their concern. But the female American Alligator is an unusually attentive mother. Females build huge nests of sticks, leaves, and other plant materials, and then lay 20-60 eggs in them. They then create a mounded cover for the nest out of grasses and mud. This will enhance the temperature inside the nest, which can end up about 10 feet in diameter and 3 feet high. As if that’s not enough, female gators guard these nests from predators, including other alligators. After about 65 days, the occupants of these eggs begin to loudly peep, signaling that hatching is beginning. Amazingly, the mothers can gently carry up to ten of the young in their mouths, so she immediately takes them to safer ground, where she will do her best to protect them for up to a year.
Trouble is brewing
But what’s happening inside these 3-inch long alligator eggs during incubation? It’s the reason this incredible species may now be facing a threat greater than the craze for purses, briefcases, and shoes made from their hides. The gender of American Alligator hatchlings isn’t determined until about 30 days into the incubation period, and gender depends on the temperature inside the nest. The nests are so large they naturally have some variation in temperature inside them, so some eggs should produce females and others males.
But the trick is this – if it’s too cold (below 88 degrees) during incubation, the hatchlings will all be female, and they’ll have high mortality rates. If it’s too hot in the nest (above 96 degrees or so), the eggs will also produce all females, and they too will have high mortality rates. There is a sweet spot, between about 90-92 degrees, where the eggs are likely to produce males. Climate change, particularly the warming of the alligators’ natural habitats, is already greatly affecting the proportion of male alligator hatchlings, because it’s just getting too hot inside the nests now.
But by learning ways to live more sustainably (for example, simple things like limiting single-use plastics), even individuals can begin positively affecting the prospects for the American Alligator and all the other amazing animals on earth – oh, and for humans, too. So come to the Reid Park Zoo, learn how you can fight climate change, and get to know and appreciate the amazing American Alligator. That will make it even more fun to anticipate meeting his Indonesian cousin, the Komodo Dragon, in the Reid Park Zoo expansion!