by Whit Gibbons

July 2, 2006

Alligators seem to stay in the news, and they generate many questions, such as the following:

Q. Why have there been so many attacks by alligators in Florida during the past few weeks?

A. Three women were eaten by alligators a month or so ago in Florida, and many other gator attacks have been confirmed. The answer to why is a simple one. The population density in Florida continues to rise, placing more and more people in association with the largest native reptile in North America. Although each individual case is a personal tragedy, many of the people attacked, bitten, and sometimes killed by alligators placed themselves in harm's way. Alligators are not doing much different from what alligators have always done. People are.

Often people are simply being naive: naively swimming in lakes and canals at night where large alligators are known to live; being new to the region and naive about the wildlife that inhabits the region (and always has); naively walking an equally naive dog along a waterway with big alligators (alligators will come out of the water to eat a dog).

Again, not to minimize the personal suffering of families affected, alligators kill fewer humans in a decade than cars kill in a day or dogs or horses do in a year. Why do alligators harm even a few humans? Most injuries are caused when humans have fed the alligator (an illegal activity), invaded its territory (including moving into it permanently), or threatened its young. When humans choose to live in a place where they might come in contact with alligators or any other large animal, wild or domestic, each person should be responsible for knowing where not to tread. And it goes without saying that it is the responsibility of parents and guardians to watch out for children under their care. You can't expect an alligator to do so.

Q. What do you think about the outcry in Lakeland about alligators eating the mute swans?

A. Lakeland, Fla., calls itself the City of Swans because a flock of 200 of the introduced white birds swims around in a downtown lake. Lakeland may have to change its name to the City of Gators if a recent trend continues--alligators have eaten almost a dozen of the swans in the past month. Some of the residents have called for removal of the gators. What do I think? I think that mute swans are native to Europe and that alligators, which eat waterfowl, are native to Florida. Alligators, as I said before, are not doing much different from what they ever have. Mute swans are.

Q. My neighbor swears he saw a large alligator swimming in the ocean somewhere along the Charleston, S.C., coast at least 200 yards from shore. Do alligators ever leave freshwater lakes and rivers?

A. Alligators leave freshwater habitats to travel overland during droughts, in search of mates, and to avoid confrontations with larger male alligators. They will enter saltwater habitats on occasion and have even been found a mile or more out to sea. They do not live in the ocean but can tolerate saltwater for hours or maybe days without a problem.

Q. Is there a sonic sound wave that can scare alligators out of the water?

A. As far as I know, this is not an effective way to make alligators leave the water, but they are able to detect water vibrations through sense organs in the jaws and perhaps would respond by leaving the water. However, if sonic vibrations in the water bothered them, they might just lift their jaws out of the water.

Q. Do alligators have the ability to jump out of the water the way a fish does? Can an alligator leap straight up out of the water? If so, how high?

A. I saw crocodiles on the Adelaide River in Australia jump to grab meat from the end of a stick 10 feet above the water. I have never seen alligators do this, but since they have a body shape similar to a crocodile and have a flat tail, I assume that they might be able to, at least for a few feet.

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