Alligator Love: A Courtship
Twenty million years as a resident of planet Earth, and counting…. Scientists believe that the American alligator resembles animals that inhabited our planet as long as 100-150 million years ago — and that they may be linked to creatures dating 50-65 million years ago, managing to avoid the extinction that killed off the dinosaurs, their prehistoric contemporaries.
I was *exceptionally* fortunate to have recently witnessed a mating pair of alligators in our protected wetlands — while I believe the actual mating had already occurred (as evidenced by their babies on the nearby bank), their affinity for each other was obvious. I was thrilled to have captured the courtship images… Below!
A member of the crocodilian family, there are two alligator species living in the world today: the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) and the Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis). American alligators are found in the southeastern United States; the majority inhabit Florida and Louisiana, with over a million alligators in each state. Interestingly, southern Florida is the only place where both alligators and crocodiles exist side-by-side. We’ve actually seen a growing number of crocodiles in our trips to the Everglades.
Alligators live in freshwater environments, including ponds, marshes, wetlands, rivers, and swamps, as well as brackish environments. They’re long-lived animals, living more than 50 years in the wild. As with other cold-blooded reptiles, it’s common to see them basking in the sun, thus regulating their body temperatures. Occasionally they keep their mouths open, akin to a dog panting — it’s a cooling mechanism.
Sadly, American alligator populations suffered tremendously throughout the 20th century, when they were hunted to near-extinction for their hides — an estimated 10 million alligators were slaughtered. Since the Endangered Species Act of 1973 however, these amazing creatures’ populations continue to grow, and illegal poaching is better controlled. Twenty million years on planet Earth, and we nearly managed to wipe them out for handbags.
Courtship and Breeding
Alligators reach breeding maturity at 6-10 years of age, when they’re approximately 6-7 feet long. Growth slows after this point, but some of the oldest males may grow upwards of 16 feet, reaching 1,200 pounds. We’ve seen some LARGE GATORS out in the ‘Glades…. And it’s pitiful to see the yahoos on reality TV wrestling (rastling?) the smaller juveniles. In the first place, WHY? Secondly, bullies much, picking on the babies?
Interestingly, recent studies have shown that up to 70 percent of alligator females remained with their partner — often for many years.
Breeding begins in the spring (mid-April through May, specifically), and you can hear their loud bellows throughout the swamps — calls used to attract mates and warn off other males. While (like all wildlife) gators don’t want to bother humans, the mating season isn’t the time to push your luck — aggression is at a higher level, and they may become more territorial (the older ones, at least). On our hikes, we’re always aware of the season. Alligator courtship is complex — vocalizations, head-slapping on the water’s surface, body posturing, snout and back rubbing, bubble blowing, and pheromone (scent) signals all play into the process.
Nesting and the Young
Alligator nests (or mounds) are built by the female, and comprised of vegetation, sticks, and mud located in a sheltered spot in or near the water. She lays 20-50 eggs, and covers them under more vegetation which heats as it decays, serving to incubate the eggs. The female will remain near the nest throughout the 65-day incubation period, protecting it. If a mother alligator is killed or removed, she can’t protect her nest or young — and the hatchlings are doomed. *Leave wildlife alone.*
Hatchlings are 6-8 inches long, and are near-replicas of their parents, save for a series of yellow and black stripes which camouflage beautifully with the surrounding marsh roots. For five months, they’ll remain with the mother before finding their own ways. In our area, we typically see 5-10 baby alligators survive in the protected wetlands. Perhaps less. Common predators that prey upon the juvenile alligators include snapping turtles, snakes, raccoons, bobcats, raptors, and even larger alligators. But when we find them? Oh my…. I must break up these posts, though — there are too many images, and the adorableness level is simply too high. Next: Alligator Babies!