According to scientists the alligator has been inhabiting this planet for almost two hundred twenty million (220,000,000) years. This makes it an older species than many dinosaurs.
Though it comes from that time in the remote past, an alligator is not a dinosaur; it is classified as a reptile. Like many reptiles, alligators continue to grow throughout their life-times making them one of the largest apex predators on the planet. They are cold blooded (endothermic) meaning they do not generate their own heat. As reptiles they also lay eggs and live on both land and water.
They are equally dangerous in both settings, though they are most dangerous in the water where they can move freely and remain largely concealed.
Alligator Range and Habitat
Alligators prefer marshy freshwater areas in the southeastern United States and in China along the Yangtze river. Though the American (Alligator mississippiensis) and Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis) look similar at first glance, the Chinese species rarely exceeds five feet while the American alligator can reach lengths of eighteen or more feet.
As alligator get larger and older they become more territorial. This will cause younger alligators to leave the area and inhabit areas where there are no 'gators. This could mean areas that are inhabited by humans.
Distinguishing an Alligator from a Crocodile
Though they are clearly related alligators and crocodiles are not identical. The alligator has a head that is both wider at the base and shorter. The tip of the alligator head (the snout) is "U" shaped while the crocodile is more pointed. Alligators are more freshwater creatures while crocodiles are more attuned to saltwater. Both can inhabit either, though the crocodile has glands that help it filter saltwater.
As juveniles alligators (nine and a half inches to five feet) will eat small fish, frogs, rats, mice, and shellfish. As they grow the diet changes to large prey. Adolescent alligators (five to nine feet) will eat dogs, cats, larger fish, birds, and on rare occasions juvenile alligators. Adult alligators (nine feet and up) will eat deer, raccoon, snake, wild boar, sheep, and cattle. Occasionally adult alligator will eat juvenile and adolescent alligator.
As alligator grow their hunting habits change from "in the water" only to both water and land. Despite looking quite ungainly they are capable of rapid movement in both water and on land. Fortunately, it is much harder for them to move on land, but they are capable of running at up to twenty-five miles an hour, far faster than a human, for short distances.
The Alligator Arsenal
Alligator are well equipped to deal a painful and swift death to their prey. The mouth is loaded with sharp teeth (up to twenty five) and alligator can exert extreme force with a bite.
The tail is huge in proportion to the overall body length in that the tail can make up almost half the length of the alligator. The tail is used for propulsion, as a striking weapon, and as a means of rapid rolling movement. Alligator hunters claim that the tail is strong enough to break any bone in the human body including the femur.
Alligator limbs are equipped with sharp claws, five in front and four in back, which are capable of ripping flesh to the bone.
In experiments with a force meter a small, five foot alligator, was found to have a bite force of one thousand pounds per square inch. A twelve foot alligator was found to have a bite force of two thousand two hundred pounds per square inch. That's the weight of a car exerted in a mouth not even a foot wide at the tip.
Though larger alligators have not been tested, scientists speculate that the alligator may have the most bite force of any animal on the planet.
Strangely, the alligator uses much less force and fewer, weaker muscles to open its mouth. For this reason it is possible for someone to keep an alligator's mouth closed with only the pressure exerted by two hands.
As if the bite pressure weren't bad enough the alligator also harbors roughly twenty different type of bacteria in it's mouth. If a human were to survive a bite, and somehow remove a hand or foot from its mouth, he or she would then face the possibility of a very nasty infection. Fortunately, anti-biotic treatment and a thorough washing of the bite will prevent a rotting wound.
There are recorded cases of alligator bites from one hundred to one hundred-fifty years ago that resulted in the victim having an amputation.
The tail, being almost half the length of its body, can be used for propulsion, as a defensive weapon, much like a club, or as a means to roll its entire body rapidly in the water.
The alligator is arguably one of the most stealthy creatures in the wild. While in the water a twelve foot gator can present only a few inches of surface area above the water. This is mainly a portion the head with only the eyes and nostril's protruding above the water. Though they typically swim at roughly one mile per hour a 'gator on the hunt is capable of rapid movement out of the water, straight up if necessary, in order to capture prey. Speeds of up to fifteen miles per hour, out of the water, have been recorded.
On land they are equally stealthy if not even more dangerous. Skin coloration is such that they blend into their surroundings. Though the 'gator typically "belly walks" when not alarmed, on the attack it is capable of raising it's body mass up on its legs and running at up to twenty-five miles per hour.
Alligator also have the remarkable ability to reroute blood in it's body while under water. By confining oxygenated blood to only its lungs an alligator can stay underwater, holding its breath, for up to two hours.
If the alligator's prey is small enough, such as bird, rat or mouse, the alligator will simply swallow it whole. If the prey is larger or the alligator has only got hold of a limb, it may begin spinning in the water, with the aid of its large tail, in what some call a "death roll." This action serves to twist off whatever part of the animal the alligator has hold of. It can then swallow that piece whole.
If the animal captured is large enough the alligator may simply stuff it's body under a submerged log or ledge and wait for that body to rot enough to eat.
An alligator is really pretty marvelous in that it has existed for hundreds of millions of years, through repeated huge climate changes, with a brain no larger than a walnut.
Alligator Death Roll
Alligator hunting is now licensed with a quota in place for the number of 'gator that can be taken each year. Hunting is typically confined to a one month period.
It's a risky proposition. With all of its natural abilities, bringing a 'gator in, dead or alive, can be a deadly adventure. The best way to kill one is to shoot it in the head. Unfortunately the "kill spot" on a 'gator is only about the diameter of a quarter. Shooting exactly this spot is extremely difficult, especially if the 'gator is putting up a fight.
Worse, a 'gator's skull is both thick and brittle. Shooting a 'gator in the wrong place will either have no effect or cause the skull to fracture sending bone fragment shrapnel back at the hunter.
Capturing one alive is even more risky and may not be attempted once a 'gator reaches a certain size. A captured alligator must have its mouth and all four legs taped to the body with a strong water-proof tape.
The process typically takes the efforts of two or more strong humans. The capture typically means one human immobilizes the head with a wire rope noose with the other immobilizing the tail.
Once the 'gator is relocated releasing one also presents a risk. An angry 'gator can rapidly double back on itself and bite or thrash its former captors with its tail.
Popularion and Reproduction
In the late 1800s and early 1900s alligators were hunted nearly to extinction due to their fearsomeness and the fine leather from their skins. In the 1950s laws were passed to protect them and restrict hunting to licensed hunts only.
The population rebounded and the "total protection" status was lifted in 1987. Hunters still require a license to hunt them, but this is by quota with hunting tags issued for the total number of 'gators hunters expect to take every year.
The near extinction event was the result of hunting that exceeded the birth rate of the alligator.
Female alligators will build a nest in the spring and lay thirty to forty eggs. She may also build a false nest as a decoy away from her real nest.
The eggs will incubate for roughly sixty five days. Ambient temperature determines the gender of the hatch-lings, with tempertures between ninety and nintey-five degrees resulting in males and temperatures ranging from eighty-two to eighty-five degrees resulting in females. Temperatures between these two ranges will result in hatch-lings that are both male or female.
The nest itself is typically made up of twigs and leaves forming a shallow depression. Once the eggs are laid the female will cover them with more leaves and natural debris. As this vegetation decays it keeps the nest warm as it mulches.
Once the alligator begin to hatch they will emit a chirping noise. When the mother hears this she will go to the nest and begin digging out the hatchlings.
In the first year of life juvenile alligators will fall prey to raccoon, turtles, snakes, and bear. Over time, up to five years of age, eighty percent of those young alligators will die to predation leaving only 1/5th to survive to juvenile status. A further eighty percent of those remaining will die to hunters and other, larger alligators.
Generally speaking the older alligator is deemed smart or lucky.
The author was not compensated in any way, either monetarily, with discounts, or freebies by any of the companies mentioned.
Though the author does make a small profit for the word count of this article none of that comes directly from the manufacturers mentioned. The author also stands to make a small profit from advertising attached to this article.
The author has no control over either the advertising or the contents of those ads.
Sourav Rana on April 12, 2016:
I am surprised to know about survival period and jaw pressing force of an alligator. Nice info LiamBean.
LiamBean (author) from Los Angeles, Calilfornia on April 13, 2012:
Wesman: Please do ad the link if you want. I've never had alligator, and I lived in the gulf-coast area for years. I think it was partially due to the fact that they were endangered for so long.
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on April 13, 2012:
Terrific article, Sir, and I stumbled upon it while making my own about alligators - unless you tell me not to, the I would like to put this link in my article (which will be very different)
Just "no thanks" on that backyard full of melon eating monsters....I'll pass!!!!
Ever eat any alligator? I've had the worst jerkey in the world...twas alligator jerkey, and I took a bit or two, gave the rest to my much more appreciative dog friends.
LiamBean (author) from Los Angeles, Calilfornia on April 13, 2012:
Thanks peeples. I think facts are far more important than hype; positive or negative.
Peeples from South Carolina on April 13, 2012:
As a lover of Alligators growing up on the coast of South Carolina I am grateful that you did not turn this hub into bashing and stuck to facts. While they can be very dangerous they usually try to keep their distance from humans. Voted up!
LiamBean (author) from Los Angeles, Calilfornia on August 24, 2011:
Wow. Lots of comments in a single day. Thank you all for reading. I'll be doing the American Mountain Lion next.
luisj305 from Florida on August 24, 2011:
Oh yeah living near the florida everglades i see these babies all the time crossing the streets or just laying in the sun warming up,its amazing how they stay so still for hours at a time like statues..and that gator meat really is great to eat!!
cooldad from Florida on August 24, 2011:
Informative hub. I've lived most of my life in Florida and I'm very familiar with gators. Alligators and water moccasins are the main reasons why I will not get in freshwater in Florida. They are everywhere. If there is freshwater, there are gators. What kills me is when people feed them like they are pets, ridiculous.
QudsiaP1 on August 24, 2011:
Very informative, alligators scare the crap out of me. I don't know how people live with them.
Deborah-Diane from Orange County, California on August 23, 2011:
I used to live in Dallas, and heard about an occasional alligator there. Also, I heard you needed to beware of them in Caddo Lake in East Texas. Some people didn't believe it. I'm glad for your map, so I can prove that Texas does, indeed, have alligators!
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on August 23, 2011:
Nice write!!!! So far as the range on the map is concerned. I'm just slightly West of the Western border listed.
No, I've never seen one in the wild - but in Dallas' White Rock Lake - Alligators have been spotted.
I'm in Kaufman, Texas - and they've been rumored to have been spotted in our city lake.
Ryan from Louisiana, USA on August 23, 2011:
This was interesting hub. Being from Louisiana i have seen my share of gators, and eaten them too. but some of this info i did not even know. great and fun hub. voted interesting and voted up.
Andrew from Rep Boston MA on August 23, 2011:
Im happy up here in MA I dont have to worry about alligators! Very good hub about the threat!