American Alligator

American Alligator

Scientific Classification

Common Name
American alligator
Genus Species
Alligator (derived from the Spanish el lagarto - the lizard) mississippiensis (belonging to the Mississippi River)

Fast Facts

The American alligator has a large lizard-like body with four short legs and a long muscular tail. A gator's hide is rough and scaled. Young alligators are black with bright yellow blotches and stripes. Adults are a uniform dark color.
Alligators and crocodiles are similar in appearance, but exhibit a number of differences. Alligators are dark colored with a broad, rounded snout and are usually found in fresh water. Crocodiles are grayish-green and prefer coastal, brackish, and salt-water habitats. They have a narrow, tapered, triangular snout. Also, the fourth tooth on either side of the lower jaw of an alligator fits into an internal socket in the upper jaw so that these teeth are hidden when the mouth is closed. In a crocodile, the fourth tooth is always exposed.
The largest recorded specimen is attributed to a Louisiana specimen measured at 576 cm (19 ft 2 in) - though some sources cite the measurement as 6 m (19.8 ft). It should be noted, however, that this figure is unsubstantiated and, as such, held in question.
Male: Adult males typically reach lengths of 4 to 4.5 m (13.1 to 14.8 ft.)
Female: Females are smaller, growing to 3 m (9.8 ft.)
Male: Adult males weigh between 180 to 228 kg (400 to 500 lb.); the largest males may attain weights in excess of 454 kg (1000 lbs.)
Feeds on fishes, turtles, mammals, snakes, birds, and even other alligators (under certain conditions); also will eat carrion.
60 to 65 days; The temperature of the nest determines the sex of the young. If the nest is below 30 degrees Celsius (86°F) most hatchlings are female. If the nest is above 34 degrees Celsius (93°F) most hatchlings are male. Nest temperatures between 30 to 34 degrees Celsius will produce similar numbers of both sexes.
Clutch Size: 20 to 50 eggs
Sexual Maturity
Reached at about 1.8 m (6 ft.) in both male and female (about 10 to 12 years)
Life Span
Averages 30-35 years in the wild; up to 50 years or more in captivity
Found within the southeastern United States; from Texas to Florida and north coastal plains of Georgia, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Oklahoma
Found in both natural and man-made freshwater lakes, ponds, rivers, and wetland areas
Global: Estimated at over 1,000,000
IUCN: Low Risk, Least Concern
CITES: Appendix II
USFWS: Threatened (primarily due to the similarity in appearance to the endangered American crocodile); alligators were previously classified as endangered; they are one of the few animals to be downgraded from endangered to threatened (the improvement in their numbers was due to intensive conservation efforts)

Fun Facts

  1. The name alligator was derived from the Spanish words el lagarto, meaning "the lizard," which is what Spanish explorers called these creatures. The American alligator is one of just two species of true alligators - the other is the Chinese alligator.
  2. Alligators are one animal that has changed very little since the prehistoric days. When dinosaurs became extinct, these modern day contemporaries continued to prosper.
  3. The alligator became the official state reptile of Florida in 1987. It is also the mascot of University of Florida at Gainesville.
  4. Communicating territory in the water is often difficult, but many crocodilians are quite adept at it. Most species use a headslap or jawclap above or beneath the water. A crocodilian performs a headslap by raising its head and slamming it against the surface of the water. Jawclaps are when the reptile opens its jaw in a biting motion at the surface of the water, then quickly closes it. The result is a loud pop and splash.
  5. Unlike other reptiles, female alligators will protect young for up to two years after hatching. The first two years are the most critical in the life of an alligator. Eighty percent or more may fall victim to wading birds, raccoons, bobcats, otters, snakes, large bass and even larger alligators. Once an alligator exceeds four feet, it is relatively safe from predators, but may still be vulnerable to cannibalism.
  6. There are approximately 80 teeth in their mouth at one time. When the teeth wear down they are replaced. Consequently, an alligator can go through 2,000 to 3,000 teeth in a lifetime.
  7. There are two true species of alligators: American and Chinese. The Chinese gator is smaller than its American cousin - only growing to 2 meters (7 ft.) in length. There are also fewer than 1,000 Chinese alligators left in China's lower Yangtze River Valley.
  8. Alligators are hunted for their meat and skin. As early as the 1800s, alligator skins were sold in the Miami area for $7 each.

Ecology and Conservation

Alligators construct "gator holes" with their large sweeping tails that retain water during periods of drought. These holes provide water and foraging space for many other species such as wading birds. In turn alligators may forage on the species attracted to the "hole". Other species, like the red-bellied slider, use alligator nests for their own egg deposition. Paths used by alligators in sawgrass widen to form creeks, which in turn help to flood marshes during rainy seasons.

Because of legal protection, alligators are no longer endangered. They have made a remarkable comeback but are still classified as threatened due to similarity of appearance to crocodiles. This helps insure its continued protection and that of the endangered American crocodile.

Humans can learn to live near alligators by taking wise precautions such as: not feeding them, harassing them, or approaching a nest or group of baby gators. Most alligator attacks are results of a gator that has lost its fear of man because it has been hand fed.


Brook Van Meter, Victoria. Florida's Alligators and Crocodiles. Miami: Florida Power and Light Co., 1987.

Conant, Roger and Joseph T. Collins. Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern and Central North America. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Co.1991.

Haliday, T. and K. Adler, eds. Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1987.

Levy, Charles. Endangered Species: Crocodiles and Alligators. New Jersey: Chartwell Books, 1991.

Ross, C., ed. Crocodiles and Alligators. New York: Facts on File, Inc. 1989.

Steel, Rodney. Crocodiles. Great Britain: Christopher Helm Ltd., 1989.