The American Alligator is without a doubt one of the iconic images associated with the state of Florida. Alligators are used as symbols and mascots throughout the Sunshine State. Did you know that the American Alligator is Florida’s state reptile? I like to think of alligators (or simply “gators”) as the perfect predator. They have survived the test of time. Even when numbers were critically low, with the help of conservation efforts, these magnificent reptiles endured.
Alligators are in the family Alligatoridae and found throughout the state. A close relative within this family are Caimans. Caimans are not a native Florida species. They have been introduced. A cousin of the American Alligator, the American Crocodile, is in the family Crocodylidae and is a native species found in South Florida. Both alligators and crocodiles are grouped as crocodilians, being in the Order Crocodilia.
The American Alligator is a species that inhabits aquatic habitats. This could be lakes, ponds, swamps, rivers or even drainage ditches. They prefer freshwater but have been seen on occasion in brackish or salt water. Alligators are morphologically different than crocodiles. Alligators have a wide snout and their nostrils are separated. Crocodiles have a narrow snout and their nostrils are close together. Another easy identifiable trait are their teeth. Crocodiles have interlocking teeth and the 4th tooth on the lower jaw is visible. When you look at an Alligator, you will see that they have an overbite. But, the 4th tooth on the lower jaw is hidden. Coloration is also different, crocodiles being more grayish green.
When moving to Florida, I receive several questions as to how big alligators can get and are they really dangerous. First, alligators can indeed get quite big. Females reach a length of about 8 ft. and males average 11 ft. Being a native of Florida, I have seen some very large gators in my life. The state record is 14 ft. 3.5” in Lake Washington. Now to the question “Are they dangerous”. From 1948 to 2019, there have been 413 recorded unprovoked attacks. 25 ended in fatalities. Floridians should use precautions when near alligators and the places they live. Alligators can be aggressive, especially during the mating season. Do not feed alligators. When this happens, they lose their fear and become a nuisance. Closely supervise children and pets around water. Any water body can have an alligator. Do not swim at dawn, dusk, or night. If attacked, fight back. Having said this, odds of being attacked are extremely rare. Statistically, humans are more likely to be attacked and killed by stinging venomous insects such as bees, ants, and wasps.
If you see an alligator, keep your distance. State law prohibits the killing, harassing, or possessing of alligators except under permit. Consider yourself lucky to be in the presence of a reptile that has survived more than 16 million years.
Cover Photo Credit: Jim E. Davis