INTEREST IN ALLIGATORS IS ON THE INCREASE

by Whit Gibbons


July 7, 2003


American alligators are increasing throughout much of their range; hence we receive many queries about them.

Q: My daughter recently took photos of an alligator swimming in the surf here on Seabrook Island in S.C. It eventually was encouraged to head out to sea by some of the island security, but I've been wondering why it was in the ocean in the first place. We've speculated that it was sick and possibly just confused. I've not been able to find any information on alligators in salt water and am hoping you can educate us a bit.

Bob Reed of the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory provided the following answer, which I agree with completely.

A: "Gators are seen fairly regularly in saltwater habitats and have occasionally been found miles out to sea. They are good dispersers and can tolerate saltwater for quite a while, so this sighting isn't quite as unusual as you might suspect. A number of possible explanations exist for this sighting, and I'll list a few.

"1. The recent deluges have likely flooded gator habitats, causing them to move around more, and this one just happened to swim out of freshwater while looking for a good temporary home.

"2. I can't tell the size of the animal from the photo, but it could be a young adult male looking for a territory. Adult males fiercely defend territories from other males, and the main cause of mortality among young males is attacks from bigger males. This guy could have reached maturity and found that he was no longer welcome back home, spurring him to head out in search of new horizons.

"3. There's a faint possibility that this was a female looking for a place to lay her eggs. High water levels may have flooded all of her normal egg-laying areas and pushed her out of usual haunts.

"4. You could be right about this being a sick animal."

Q: I was once told during a ride through the Florida Everglades about alligators and their ability to jump from the water. Although I could not recall the actual height they could jump, I do remember that it was impressive. When I returned from my trip, a friend said that either I had heard wrong or that our guide was mistaken, because alligators are too big and heavy to be able to jump out of the water. Can you advise me on this matter? Can an alligator jump a certain amount of feet from the water? If so, how high?

A: I have seen a 10-foot crocodile in Australia jump straight up out of a river until its tail was at least a foot above the surface. Although wild, these particular ones on the Adelaide River in the Northern Territory have learned to jump from the water to catch meat from the end of a stick. I have never seen alligators do this, but as they are approximately the same shape as a crocodile and also have a flat tail, I assume that they might be able to. I would not be surprised if they can.

Q: Is it true that the eyes of male alligators are red and those of the female are yellow?

A: The eyes of both male and female alligators are yellow with a black pupil. However, the eye shine (the reflection of the eyes at night from a flashlight) of an alligator can range from deep ruby red to orange to yellow. In contrast to the eye color of the pupils, the reflection actually looks like a shining light and is visible more than a hundred yards away. The eyes of big alligators seem to me more likely to appear deep red whereas smaller ones are more often yellow, but this can vary. Male alligators get bigger than females, but I am aware of no inherent difference between the eyes of males and females.

Alligators are fascinating animals, and like all species they and their habitat deserve our respect. But these enormous reptiles are capable of injuring or killing a person without much effort. Although generally shy, inoffensive creatures, their unpredictable behavior in some circumstances makes them a species to be cautious around, especially when children or pets are involved.



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