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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#468: See Ya Later, Alligator?

A few weeks ago while still down here in Florida, I was imitating my best Marlin Perkins (for those old enough to remember "Wild Kingdom") or Steve Irwin the crocodile hunter (for the younger crowd), inching through the underbrush alongside one of the state's billions of ponds and lakes. My quarry was the elusive roseate spoonbill, a wading bird, which had flocked together with several other water birds including wood storks, white ibises and anhingas. As I slowly moved forward for the shot, I heard a rustle in the vegetation along the side of the pond and I stopped (along with my heart). Had I failed to detect the presence of a critter found in almost every body of water in the state (including the water hazards on golf courses)? Nah.

A few days later I was back trying once more to get close enough to the colorful bird when I saw it! There in the same plant life along the pond's edge was an American alligator (Alligator mississipiensis) staring back at me with its eyes slightly above the water's surface. Now alligators are known to reach an average length of over 11 feet for males and eight to nearly ten feet for females. Heck, one big boy measured in at over 19 feet and 2,200 pounds. Fortunately the one staring at me was a mere four feet or so, and probably as wary of me as I was of the possibility its mama might be nearby!

The American alligator is endemic to the southeastern United States. The only other living species is the Chinese alligator, but there are a number of different crocodile species throughout the world. A decade ago I filmed hungry saltwater crocs in NW Australia leaping out of the water to take food. While snorkeling under a waterfall in that country's outback, I happened upon a much smaller and relatively harmless freshwater croc resting under water just a few feet from me. Back in the mid-50s when Dad was transferred to Florida from Chicago for two years, I used to walk to first and second grade on a small bridge over a swamp where alligators lounged. Of course we also had several pet alligators... but they were mere babies. Even the adults weren't as scary as the six foot Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes the older boys killed on the school playground during recess!

Alligators are mostly freshwater critters, although they will enter brackish water. They certainly aren't resident in salt water, much less SoCal's kelp forests. Since I'm still taking care of Mom, and didn't bring my underwater video housing, you're going to have to bear with me while I focus my columns on what I can see here from the surface! At least I will still write about the two most important functions of any species... munching and mating. Without the former no critter can grow to procreate, and without the latter no species can continue its existence. Yes, you can argue there is a third behavior necessary for life: respiration. I doubt any of my readers would continue to follow these columns if I focused on that subject!

Gators reach sexual maturity between five and seven feet at ages ranging from six to ten years. Breeding season begins in the spring. Males are said to bellow to attract the ladies. Hmmm, hasn't worked for me. Scientists have discovered that large groups will gather at this time for courtship rituals referred to as "alligator dances." I wonder if they play Cajun music? Females build a nest of aquatic vegetation, twigs, grasses, leaves and mud. Those familiar with compost or horse manure piles are aware that such mixtures heat up as they decompose. The 20 to 50 goose-sized white eggs are laid in the nest and take advantage of the warmth as they incubate for 8-9 weeks, protected by the female.

The temperature at which the eggs are incubated has a significant effect on gender ratio. Males dominate at temperatures of 90-93 F, females at 82-86 F and the sexes are more evenly distributed at temperatures in between. Some scientific studies indicate that higher temperatures in the environment of human sperm may favor the ones with the Y chromosome as opposed to the X, and therefore produce more males than at lower temperature. Is this why the macho buys wear briefs and the geeks wear boxers?

Hatchlings of the alligator kind average about 9 1/2" and the juveniles have a striped pattern that helps them camouflage from predators..The mother stays with and protects the young for about five months, and possibly up to two years. An individual gator may live up to 30 years.The alligator population in Florida currently numbers between one and 1.5 million. However, back in 1967 they were declared endangered and were given protection... several years before the Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Nixon. They were removed from endangered status in 1987.

The menu of young hatchlings includes invertebrates such as insects, snails, spiders and worms. As they grow (on that food?), they move on to fish, molluscs, frogs and (ugh) mice and rats. Gators are most vulnerable to predation when young, and may be munched on by snapping turtles, large snakes, raccoon, largemouth bass, black bears, owls and even bald eagles. Although we think of adult gators as aquatic predators, they may spend considerable time hunting on land... even waiting in ambush near animal trails. At this stage the predator-prey relationship may reverse with the adults feeding on some of the critters that prey on their young. These include turtles, snakes, birds and black bear but other dietary choices include amphibians, livestock such as small sheep and cattle, and wild mammals including deer, black bear and even Florida panthers! Humans hunted gators for their hides and meat although most of this is supplied by farm raised animals today.

Oh, as far as the respiration angle goes, gators can remain under water without breathing for several hours if they aren't active. When hunting or actively swimming they need a breath about every 20 minutes. I could have set a lot more pool records as a high school swimmer if I knew their trick!

© 2011 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Young gator in the Florida pond scoping out Dr. Bill; mother and child bond and how some people see gators. Grrr.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2011 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia