WILL ALLIGATORS REALLY ATTACK PEOPLE?

by Whit Gibbons

September 27, 2009


Last week I wrote about William Bartram's "Travels," published in 1791, and how some biologists viewed his estimates of alligator size to be exaggerated. Some of his descriptions of alligator behavior have also been received with incredulity.

Bartram's most serious challenges have come from his descriptions of unruly alligator behavior--attacks when he was out on the water in a boat. He tells of a time when large alligators approached, "rushing up with their heads and part of their bodies, roaring terribly and belching floods of water over me." I do not believe such an attack is likely to occur today, as alligators are much more wary of humans, but I do believe his account. And I have three plausible explanations for anyone who would refute Bartram's story that alligators attacked his boat.

Some advances seemingly made on people by alligators actually have nothing to do with the human. Someone walking a dog on a leash or dragging a string of fish behind a boat might be approached by an alligator. I have seen alligators move readily toward these two kinds of prey (dogs and fish). Human self-centeredness might prompt us to consider ourselves the target of an alligator attack in these instances. In Bartram's case, the alligators may have been attracted by fish or mammal skins that he carried in his boat. If so, he may be forgiven for thinking they were attacking him.

A second possibility is maternal instinct. I once wrote, "Most reports of unprovoked alligator attacks on people are equivocal, although numerous attacks in response to provocation—albeit unwitting provocation in most instances—have been documented." Of course the caveat here is, how do you know if you have provoked an alligator? Maybe you have come too close to a nest or a baby swimming nearby, which may qualify as "provocative" behavior from the perspective of a protective mother alligator. Maybe Bartram was in the vicinity of active alligator nests or near one or more pods of baby gators with their mothers close at hand. Based on my own experiences as someone who was terrified of what an enraged mother alligator coming out of the water toward me might do (as well as being really annoyed at myself for getting in a position to find out), I assure you to say you were "attacked" does not seem like hyperbole.

The third explanation is perhaps the most believable one, as the incident presumably occurred during the mating season when combative bull alligators demonstrate their intolerance of other males entering their territory. The population Bartram was dealing with might never have seen a boat, so it might have been perceived by them as a large gator entering already declared territory. The idea of alligators bellowing, snapping their massive jaws, and rising above the water's surface thus creating a cascade effect off of the jaws and body is in no way unbelievable.

If two or more dominant males had converged on Bartram and his boat (the real target), such aggressive behavior is unquestionably within their repertoire. Beating them off with a club like he did sounds like a perfectly normal response by someone who did not have a shotgun, harpoon, or explosive boom stick, like modern hide hunters who kill alligators. I enjoyed Bartram's accounts of his alligator battles. Furthermore, I believe far more of what he says happened (possibly all of it) than do the Bartram bashers.

William Bartram traveled through uncharted lands and waters that few people had seen before. He encountered animals, plants, and habitats never before chronicled. If some of his descriptions seem to us to be embellished, we will do well to remember that the land he traversed was not the one we know today. Virgin forests, unpolluted waters, unplowed lands abounded, along with the wildlife that inhabited them. Clearly, Bartram's powers of observation were remarkable. Some of his descriptions have been acknowledged as accurate from the beginning, when they were first reported; others that were challenged at the time have later proved to be true. As for me, I will continue to think Bartram's descriptions were correct, especially about alligators, until someone can convince me otherwise. So far, no one has.


If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)

 

 
SREL HomeUGA Home