ASK QUESTIONS ABOUT ALLIGATORS AND WILLIAM BARTRAM
September 20, 2009
most common of questions people ask about alligators is How big do they
get? A new twist on this question was asked recently: How accurate was
William Bartram's statement that he had seen a 20-foot-alligator?
Bartram referred to was the author of the famous book from 1791 "Travels
through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida."
Bartram traveled over land and through waters of the Southeast before
the rest of us humans got our hands on them. He told us about plants and
animals before we had depleted some of their numbers to the point of rarity
or near-extinction. Many of today's would-be naturalists dream of traveling
with Bartram and chronicling their adventures. Appreciating his travels
is easy for anyone who thrives on wild things and wonders what it would
have been like to experience an abundance of wildlife that seemed nearly
Bartram has been criticized by some modern biologists, as well as some
in his own time, for supposed leniency in describing certain reptiles,
especially alligators. His reference to the maximum size of alligators
has been repeatedly challenged for almost a century. One writer in the
1920s declared that "the accumulated testimony of travelers and naturalists
does not support Bartram's statement."
the biggest alligator Bartram saw? He says he saw some "twenty feet
in length." Few biologists have believed his claim. A noteworthy
observation, however, is that an equal lack of acceptance has been accorded
E. A. McIlhenny (the name you read on a bottle of Tabasco Sauce) who in
the 1930s reported killing an alligator in Louisiana that was more than
19 feet long. Like Bartram, McIlhenny wrote of his numerous natural history
observations, most of which are accepted in fullbut not the maximum
size he reported for an alligator. How can assertions that alligators
could be 19 to 20 feet long be reconciled based on what we know today?
alligators characteristically are 6 to 9 feet in length, whereas males
commonly attain lengths of about 12 to 13 feet and can weigh more than
500 to 600 pounds. Exceedingly large alligators, above 14 feet, appear
to be rare or absent in today's world. In fact, a study based on skull
sizes a few years ago concluded that no alligator has ever reached a length
of 15 feet.
absence of the giants reported from yesteryear simply be a consequence
of the elimination of most older, larger individuals beginning in the
nineteenth century and continuing until alligators became formally protected
as endangered species in the 1960s and 1970s? Or were the extreme sizes
reported in the past a result of unintentional misreporting or mismeasurement?
Whatever the true maximum size any alligator has ever attained, 12- to
13-foot individuals weighing more than a quarter of a ton are around today.
these already rather large individuals still be growing and be capable
of reaching much larger sizes of 19 to 20 feet? Alligators are believed
to have what is referred to as indeterminate growth, which means they
continue growing throughout their lifetime, albeit at an ever-diminishing
rate. However, the maximum longevity of alligators is unknown. Some have
been documented to have lived to be 70 years old. Could they perhaps live
much longer than this if the older individuals were not killed by gator
hunters? And would they keep getting bigger?
Old records give an idea of the massive slaughter of alligators and indicate
how we could indeed have eliminated the giants. Alligators were nearly
obliterated throughout their range by hide hunters between the 1870s and
the early 1900s. McIlhenny documented hunts for a large area in Louisiana
where in the summer of 1916 more than 1,000 alligators were killedper
day! Presumably, such massacres were going on throughout the alligator's
natural range in the Southeast. Maybe before humans began their siege,
a few Methuselah gators were still around that had been getting bigger
and bigger for many decades.
leviathans that Bartram and McIlhenny saw actually 20 feet long? Maybe
if alligators are protected for a few more decades, such a claim may be
made againand validated.
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