Fun Facts About Alligators

alligators, crocodiles, fun facts
Adult American alligator.
Credit: Dennis Demcheck , U.S. Geological Survey

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Reptilia

Order: Crocodylia

Family: Alligatoridae

Genus: Alligator

Species: Alligator mississippiensis (American alligator), Alligator sinensis (Chinese alligator)


Basic alligator facts:

There are two true species of alligator: the American alligator and the Chinese alligator.

The American alligator has four short legs, a broad, round snout, a long and powerful tail and a rough hide with scales. Adult males can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh up to half a ton, though on average, males are about 11 feet (3.4 m) long, while females are about 8 feet (2.6 m).

American alligators have nostrils that face upward, which allows them to breathe when the rest of them is submerged underwater.

American alligators can live up to 50 years in the wild, according to the Smithsonian National Zoo.

While young, the alligator has yellow stripes on its tail, while adults have darker stripes.

Compared to its cousin the American alligator, the Chinese alligator is relatively small, with males growing to an average length of around 5 feet (1.5 meters) and females about 4.5 feet. Its snout is shorter and blunter than the American alligator. Its blunt teeth are perfect for crushing shelled animals such as clams and snails.

Alligators are generally very solitary animals and, contrary to popular belief, alligators rarely attack humans, unless provoked to do so, particularly when they are protecting their eggs or young.

Alligators feed on fish, turtles, snakes, birds and mammals, and will even engage in the cannibalistic practice of eating other alligators.

After mating, a female will construct a nest where she will lay up to 50 eggs. The rotting vegetation in the nest keeps the eggs warm and the temperature of the nest will determine the sex of the hatchlings. If the eggs are incubated over 93 degrees Fahrenheit (33.8 degrees Celsius), the embryos will develop into males, while in temperatures below 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) embryos will develop into females. In temperatures between 86 and 93 degrees Fahrenheit an embryo could develop into a male or female.

80 percent of young alligators fall prey to bobcats, wading birds, raccoons, snakes, otters, large bass and larger alligators. When they exceed four feet in length, their only predators are other alligators.


Where alligators live:

Alligators are traditionally found in freshwater such as rivers, lakes, swamps and the surrounding land.

American alligators can be found in the southeastern United States. While Louisiana has the largest population of alligators, they are also found in Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.

Chinese alligators can be found in the Yangtze River basin of eastern China.


alligators, crocodiles, fun facts
Chinese Alligator.
Credit: Public domain

Conservation status:

Chinese Alligator – Critically Endangered

American Alligator – Leas Concern

American alligators were once on the brink of extinction, but have made a remarkable comeback in the last few decades after its listing on the U.S. Endangered Species List. It was pronounced fully recovered in 1987. Alligators can now be hunted, though special permits are required.

Because other, more vulnerable species look similar to the American alligator, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service keeps it under a "threatened due to similarity of appearance" status to better regulate hunting to protect the look-alike species.

The Chinese alligator is one of the smallest and most endangered crocodilians, on the other hand. There are estimated to be fewer than 150 individuals left in the wild, according to the IUCN. The alligators have largely been affected by habitat loss as wetlands are converted into agricultural land.

Captive breeding of Chinese alligators has been successful though, with about 10,000 individuals in captivity. Chinese authorities are experimenting restocking wild populations with captive-bred individuals.


Odd facts:

The alligator derives its name from the Spanish "el lagarto," which means lizard.

The alligator is the official state reptile of Florida and the mascot of the University of Florida.

The local name for Chinese alligator is "Yow-Lung" or "T’o," meaning “dragon, according to the St. Louis Zoo.

Alligators use their tails to construct what are known as "gator holes" to retain water during periods of drought.

American alligators have between 74 and 80 teeth in their mouth at any given time, and each gator can go through 2,000 to 3,000 teeth during its lifetime.

Belgrade Zoo in Serbia boasts an alligator, named Mujo, that is 76 years old, believed to be the oldest alligator in captivity.

Alligators can be distinguished from crocodiles by their snouts, where they live (crocodiles dwell in live in saltwater, alligators in fresh), and by their teeth: Alligators teeth are covered when their mouths are closed, while the fourth tooth on the lower jaw sticks out for crocodiles.

The alligator is called a "living fossil" from the Age of Reptiles, as it has existed on Earth for the past 200 million years.


Other resources:

St. Louis Zoo – Chinese Alligator

St. Louis Zoo – American Alligator

Smithsonian National Zoo – American Alligator

Tennessee Aquarium – American Alligator

IUCN Red List – Chinese Alligator

IUCN Red List – American Alligator

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – American Alligator (pdf)

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