Alligators in Oklahoma turn into 'popsicles' sticking out of the frozen water

This alligator 'popsicle' is making sure it can breathe in its frozen lake.
This alligator 'popsicle' is making sure it can breathe in its frozen lake. (Image credit: David Arbor, courtesy of U.S. Forest Service)

Oklahomans came face-to-face with popsicle-like alligators — reptiles whose snouts were sticking straight out of the icy water — when the cold snap hit the American South this month.

But why were these alligators "snorkeling" in such cold weather? Why weren't they sunning on the banks or hiding in their burrows?

And who knew Oklahoma even had alligators? The news of the snorkeling alligators sparked a debate on Facebook over whether alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) were a native or introduced species to the state. According to an 1866 description of an alligator written in an Oklahoman man's diary, it appears that they are native, although other alligators have been introduced to wetlands in the state's southeastern corner since then, said Jena Donnell, the Wildlife Diversity Communication Specialist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

As for the alligator's weird snorkeling behavior, it's completely normal, Donnell told Live Science. "Whenever it ices over, this is a natural response [seen in alligators]," she said. "Since the water they were in froze over, they had to create a 'snorkel,' so they tipped their nose out of the water to keep some ice-free water, so they're still able to breathe."

Related: Alligators vs. crocodiles: Photos reveal who's who

Alligators are cold-blooded, or ectothermic creatures, which means their body temperature fluctuates with the ambient temperature. That's why alligators are often found basking in the sun or camping out in burrows with air pockets that they've dug into the banks of lakes and waterways.

When freezing temperatures hit their habitats, gators don't bask on the bank, as cold air can be colder than the water. Instead of hanging out in their burrows, where they might become trapped underwater if the water freezes over, alligators often swim to the surface to go snorkeling, ensuring that they'll have enough oxygen. 

If the water is cold, but not yet frozen, alligators will often swim to deeper waters, which are warmer than the shallows, Donnell said.

'Snorkeling' alligators stick out their snouts in the Red Slough Wildlife Management Area of Oklahoma. (Image credit: David Arbor, courtesy of U.S. Forest Service)

Unfortunately, not all of the alligators survived the cold snap at the Red Slough Wildlife Management Area, a 5,800-acre (2,300 hectares) refuge in southeastern Oklahoma that's managed by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. 

Not all of the alligators made it through the cold snap. (Image credit: David Arbor, courtesy of U.S. Forest Service)

Donnell didn't immediately know how many alligators had died during the cold snap, but those that did were young. "Most of the adults were able to survive the cold-weather event," she said. "It's always fascinating how animals will adapt and how they can bring out different survival techniques."

Freezing temperatures and icy conditions aren't uncommon in southeastern Oklahoma; on average, McCurtain County, where Red Slough is located, has about 60 days a year with temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius), according to a 2017 study in the journal Herpetological Review

Nor are snorkeling alligators unique to Oklahoma; they've also been spotted in North Carolina in 2018 and 2019, Live Science previously reported. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.