Long feared by humans, the alligator is a unique and terrifying mammal. Learn more about this scary predator here.
Fear of big, flesh eating reptiles has always encompassed a large percentage of the population and with good reason. Alligators are among the most dangerous reptiles in the world, often prone to strike at humans for no reason.
Crocodilian is a word that means lizard like, egg-laying meat-eater. The lizard is a member of the crododilian family as are alligators, caimans, and gavials. There are a total of twenty living species of crocodilian reptiles, all of which reside in or around bodies of water.
Alligators constitute the last living link with the dinosaur-like reptiles of prehistoric times. Even though reptiles first appeared on the earth 300 million years ago, scientists have theorized that the alligator is one of the few reptiles that have not changed much through time.
Alligators, which also belong to the Alligatoridae family, make their homes in freshwater locales. The American alligator inhabits the southeastern United States from North Carolina to Florida and west to the lower Rio Grande.
ALLIGATOR OR CROCODILE
Because of obvious similarities, alligators and crocodiles are often misidentified. There are several key differences, however, which distinguish one from the other. Alligators have broader heads and blunter snouts. The alligator's teeth also fit inside its mouth and are not visible, in contrast to the crocodile's large bottom teeth, which protrude through its lower lip.
Alligators have been known to reach 20 feet in length, though the average size is 6-8 feet. Much like the crocodile, when alligators swim, they leave their nostrils, eyes, and ears above the surface. Both animals have protective features which allow them the ability to swim in this manner. Their eyes can be covered with semitransparent membranes, and the ears and nostrils can be closed over by folds of skin.
Alligators are nocturnal, and operate mostly during night time hours. During the day they often lie at the water's edge in large numbers, basking in the sun. At night, they retreat to the water, where they have established individual territories. A resident alligator will roar loudly should an intruder enter into his space.
All members of the crocodilian family are egg laying animals. After a brief period of courtship, which takes place in the water, eggs are deposited in a nest previously made by the mother alligator. She then guards the small, chicken sized eggs for two to three months, until they hatch. The eggs are incubated by sun-warmed rotting vegetation placed on them by the mother. Female Alligators lay 20-70 hard shelled eggs at a time.
When the eggs are ready to hatch, the mother clears away their covering and watches as the young emerge by puncturing the egg with a horny growth on the tip of the snout. Newborn alligators or crocodiles are about 8 to 10 inches long and are vulnerable to many predators, including fish, birds, and larger crocodilians. Young alligators increase in length about one foot per year. Young crocodiles and alligators eat worms and insects. As they begin to mature, they add frogs, tadpoles, and fishes to their diets. The oldest eat mammals and yes, occassionally a human being.
Alligators hunt by surprising their prey and knocking them into the water with their powerful tail. Animals too large to be swallowed whole are torn to pieces or shaken until they drown. The prey is then placed into the alligators private burrow, where it often decays.
Captive crocodilians may live up to 40 years; those in the wild can live beyond 100.