By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director
Nothing on four feet is identified with Florida as much as the alligator.
The toothy grin is found on post cards, T-shirts, and a nearly unending list of tourist promotional items which invite northern visitors to come and leave their money.
Florida has two native species of crocodilians, the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) and the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus). Fortunately, only the less aggressive alligator is found in Wakulla County.
The American alligator once occupied all wetland habitats along the gulf coast and on the Atlantic side up to North Carolina.
From freshwater marshes and swamps to mangrove estuaries, alligators were present.
The family Alligatoridae, which is distinct from crocodiles, first appeared about 37 million years ago. The fossil records indicatecrocodiles have existed since the late Cretaceous period 84 million years ago during the last days of dinosaurs.
Today there are only two species of alligator in the world, the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) and the Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis) which is in danger of becoming extinct.
The name “alligator” originated with the Spanish explorers who identified this reptile as “el lagarto,” the lizard.
This eventually changed into “aligarto” and then “alligator” by English settlers who arrived later.
The family Alligatoridae includes five species of caimans, which are native to Central and South America.
Spectacled caimans, which are smaller than the American alligator, have become established in some parts of south Florida, presumably from people releasing pets into the wild.
Alligators prefer freshwater, rarely being found in brackish sources.
Crocodiles in this hemisphere occur almost exclusively in the marine and brackish coastal waters of extreme southern Florida.
Alligators primarily hunt at dusk or during the night taking advantage of reduced visibility and their natural camouflage. These ambush predators lay motionless in wait for prey.
Their prey selection is determined primarily by the size of the target species and the determination of the gator.
Also, an alligator’s diet depends on what is available and it will eat anything digestible including fish, frogs, birds, turtles, insects, snakes, small mammals, other alligators, white-tailed deer, wild hogs, and sometimes people’s pets.
Once the prey is caught, it is typically swallowed whole. The gator’s teeth are designed for gripping, but not chewing.
Alligators have exceptionally powerful jaws which can crush turtle shells and the bones of small mammals.
A flap in their throat allows this reptile to capture prey while submerged without water entering the breathing passages.
The alligator will stash its kill underwater when prey animals are too large to be swallowed whole.
The unfortunate animal will be pinned under a submerged log or anywhere it can be wedged in for safe keeping until ready for consumption.
Alligators are generally timid towards humans and tend to retreat if approached.
However, if a gator become accustomed to humans in its environment, a serious problem can result.
Alligators have been the subject of numerous urban legends including a hyper-aggressive population in the New York City sewers.
It is true baby gators were sold to tourist in previous decades, but the wild population is located only in warmer latitudes.