American Alligator, More Friend than Foe

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Sorry I haven’t posted in a while.  This is an American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensi) that I came across on a kayak tour out at Wambaw Creek in the Francis Marion around McClellanville, SC.  This was a lazy one because it sat there the whole day, through 2 tours I gave.  These are very beautiful and misunderstood animals.  The first question I get before my tours is “Are we going to get eaten by an alligator?” when I people should be asking “do I have on enough sunscreen?” or “do I need water?”  This just goes to show that people are so worried about unrealistic things than they are about the actual risks on a kayak tour.  The biggest risks on a kayak tour are people getting severe sunburns, people getting overheated, people getting dehydrated, or people falling out of the boat.  But most of them don’t care about the actual risks, they are just scared they are going to get eaten by an alligator.

Lets ponder that thought for a while.  In the state of South Carolina there have been no fatal alligator attacks (since the 1970’s at least).  Naturally, alligators are afraid of humans.  As someone who has spent a lot of time sharing the same habitats as alligators, I can tell you that their natural reaction is to get away from you and hide.  They are not the aggressive beasts that everyone thinks they are.  Attacks are very rare and many times humans are the ones to blame.  Usually attacks occur when a gator is provoked, defending a nest or young, or have lost their natural fear of humans due to someone feeding them.  On the other side of that coin, sunburns happen nearly every time I go out.  With someone dying of skin cancer every 57 mins in out country (2), that is more of a risk than getting eaten by a gator.  Heat Stroke has caused 20-22 deaths since 2010-2014 (3).  Conversely, there have been 0 fatal alligator attacks in these years.  So I would say its more important to worry about having water and applying sunscreen than to worry about alligators.

Alligators are awesome creatures.  They are nocturnal feeders that eat fish, birds, small mammals, and other reptiles.  They love to sun during the day, mainly to warm their bodies up to have enough energy to hunt at night.  They live about 30-35 years in the wild and grow and average of 13 feet long (largest recorded was 19 ft. 2 in.) and can weigh over 600 lbs.  In the state of South Carolina they are the largest reptile and largest natural predator.  They lay their eggs in April-May and have a 60 day gestation before hatching.  The sex is determined by the temperature of the environment when they hatch (86 degrees F produces all females and 93 degrees F produces all males).  The mother will stay with the babies until they are large enough to fend for themselves.

An important thing to note is that alligators are ectothermic, which is what most people refer to as “cold blooded” (which isn’t correct because their bodies are the same temperature as the environment, which can be pretty hot).  These ectothermic animals do not have to spend energy regulating their body temperature.  Mammals and birds, which are homeothermic, have to spend energy to keep their body temperatures at a distinct temperature (humans around 98.7) which is usually warmer than their surroundings.  This means that mammals and birds need vastly more energy, in the form of food, than reptiles like the alligator.  A full grown alligator only really needs around 1 lb of food a day to survive.  They also do not have the ability to chew their food, they must swallow their food whole.  So an alligator does not usually pursue anything it can’t swallow whole and doesn’t need that much to eat.  Not the monsters that you thought they were, right?  The bottom line is they do not see us as food and for the most part do their best to stay away from us all together.

Now for how humans impact these alligators.  They are actually considered a Threatened species.  Before regulations, alligators were hunted for their skins and meat.  They are still hunted today, but it is more regulated.  They are also commonly shot because people fear them when they come in their yard.  In ranges where they are declining it is mainly due to habitat loss, which is caused mostly by human development.  When alligators are fed by humans they loose their natural fear of humans and will seek us out for food, they can then become aggressive and attack pets, kids, or adults.  These are called “nuisance gators” and most are executed by wildlife control when called.  So if an alligator were going on a “human tour,” a legitimate question for the alligator would be “am I going to get killed by humans?” because we kill many more of them than they kill us.  These are naturally wonderful creatures that have been around for about 37 million years and I hope they will be here for many more years to come.  Thanks for reading!!!

1) Basic Facts About American Alligators. (2012, March 2). Retrieved May 8, 2015, from                       http://www.defenders.org/american-alligator/basic-facts

2) Skin Cancer Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved May 8, 2015, from http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts#melanoma

3) What To Do When Heat Stroke Strikes. (2014, June 28). Retrieved May 8, 2015, from http://www.medicaldaily.com/heat-stroke-rates-are-rising-us-when-it-hits-cool-first-transport-second-290474

for common myths about alligators click Here

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