U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service American Alligator Alligator mississippiensis
A member of the crocodile family, the American alligator is a living fossil from the Age of Reptiles, having survived on earth for 200 million years.
American alligator populations reached all-time lows in the 1950s, primarily due to market- hunting and habitat loss. However, in 1987, the alligator was pronounced fully recovered, making it one of the first endangered species success stories.
Today, alligators are found throughout the Southeast, from the Carolinas to Texas and north to Arkansas.
Description and Diet John Hammond, USFWS The alligator can be distinguished American Alligator from the crocodile by its head shape and color. The crocodile has a narrower snout, and unlike the survival. Alligators depend on an overhanging bank to create a alligator, has lower jaw teeth that are wetlands—and in some ways hidden den. After tunneling as visible even when its mouth is shut. wetlands depend on them. As far as 20 feet, it enlarges the end, In addition, adult alligators are black, predators at the top of the food chain, making a chamber with a ceiling high while crocodiles are brownish in color. they help control numbers of rodents enough above water level to permit and other animals that might overtax breathing. This is not the alligator’s The alligator has a large, slightly the marshland vegetation. nest but merely a place for the reptile rounded body, with thick limbs, a to survive the dry season and winter. broad head, and a very powerful tail The alligator’s greatest value to that it uses to propel itself through the marsh and other animals within Breeding and Life History water. The tail accounts for half the it are the “gator holes” that many The breeding season begins in the alligator’s length. While alligators adults create and expand through the spring. Although alligators have no move very quickly in water, they years. An alligator uses its mouth and vocal cords, males bellow loudly to are generally slow-moving on land, claws to uproot vegetation to clear attract mates and warn off other although they can be quick for short out a space; then, shoving with its males during this time by sucking air distances. body and slashing with its powerful into their lungs and blowing it out in tail, it wallows out a depression intermittent, deep-toned roars. Alligators will eat just about that stays full of water in the wet anything, but primarily consume fish, season and holds water after the The female builds a nest of turtles, and snails. Small animals that rains stop. During the dry season, vegetation, sticks, leaves, and mud come to the water’s edge to drink and particularly during extended in a sheltered spot in or near the make easy prey. Young alligators droughts, gator holes provide vital water. After she lays 20 to 50 white, mostly feed on insects, crustaceans, water for fish, insects, crustaceans, goose-egg sized eggs, she covers snails, and fish. snakes, turtles, birds, and other them under more vegetation, which, animals in addition to the alligator like mulch, heats as it decays, helping Biological Role itself. to keep the eggs warm. She remains As during the Reptile Age, alligators near the nest throughout the 65- live in wetlands, vital habitat that Sometimes, the alligator may expand day incubation period, protecting holds the key to their continued its gator hole by digging beneath the nestJanuary from intruders. 1998 When the John Hammond, USFWS young begin to hatch, they emit a A combined effort by the U.S. Fish Although the American alligator is high-pitched croaking noise, and the and Wildlife Service and State secure, some related animals—such female quickly digs them out. The wildlife agencies in the South as several species of crocodiles and young, tiny replicas of adult alligators saved these unique animals. The caimans —are still in trouble. For with a series of yellow bands around Endangered Species Act prohibited this reason, the Fish and Wildlife their bodies, then find their way to alligator hunting, allowing the species Service continues to protect the water. For several days they continue to rebound in numbers in many areas alligator under the ESA classification to live on yolk masses within their where it had been depleted. As it as “threatened due to similarity bellies. began to make a comeback, States of appearance.” The Service thus established alligator monitoring regulates the harvest of alligators Alligators reach breeding maturity programs and used the information and legal trade in the animals, their between the ages of 8 and 13 years, at to ensure that numbers continued skins, and products made from them, which time they are about 6 to 7 feet to increase. In 1987, the Fish and as part of efforts to prevent the illegal long. From then on, growth continues Wildlife Service pronounced the take and trafficking of endangered at a slower rate. Old males may grow American alligator fully recovered “look-alike” reptiles. to be 14 feet long and weigh up to and consequently removed the animal 1,000 pounds during a lifespan of 30 from the list of endangered species. The story of the American alligator years or more. is one of both drastic decline and complete recovery. A story of State Decline and Recovery and Federal cooperation, it is truly Historically, alligators were depleted one of the prominent successes of from many parts of their range the Nation’s endangered species as a result of market-hunting and program. habitat loss. Forty years ago many people believed this unique reptile U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would never recover. In 1967, under Endangered Species Program a law that preceded the Endangered 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Room 420 Species Act of 1973, the alligator was Arlington, VA 22203 listed as endangered, meaning it was 703-358-2390 considered in danger of extinction http://www.fws.gov/endangered/ throughout all or a significant portion of its range. NPS U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region 1875 Century Boulevard, N. E. Atlanta, Georgia 30345 404-679-7100 http://www.fws.gov/southeast/
(top): American alligator (middle): Alligator hatching from the egg (bottom): American alligator den USFWS