by Whit Gibbons

April 29, 2012

Alligators were a source of wonder to the first European settlers in America. Judging from the number of queries I get about them, they are still of interest to many people. With the advent of spring the questions about alligators increase; the following are some basic questions I have received.

Q. Are alligators a type of lizard? Is it true that alligators are kin to birds?

A. Alligators are reptiles that are very closely related to crocodiles. Other major groups of reptiles are the turtles, snakes, and lizards. Technically, alligators are no more closely related to lizards than they are to snakes. Although alligators are shaped somewhat like lizards, they are only distantly related to them. Scientists consider birds to be the closest relatives of alligators and crocodiles.

Q. Do you know a good source for information about where alligators live in the United States, even if there are only small populations of them in a state? I have heard that they can be found in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

A. The website has a reliable fact sheet about alligators, including a distribution map. "Alligators occur on the Atlantic Coast of North America from Florida through coastal North Carolina, and along the Gulf Coast into Texas. Alligators are restricted to the Coastal Plain." So, yes, they can be found in Oklahoma and Arkansas. They occur throughout Florida and Louisiana. Incidentally, another species of alligator is native to China; the Chinese alligator is bordering on extinction in the wild.

Q. How fast can an alligator move on land? Is it possible to outrun one?

A. Alligators can run about as fast as a person for a few feet but cannot sustain that speed for very long. I have never encountered an irate alligator (always a female guarding a nest or babies) that I could not outrun, which is why I am able to answer your question.

Q. How big was the largest alligator ever captured?

A. In a study done in Florida from 1977 to 1993, the largest male alligator was 14 feet long and the largest female, 10 feet, 2 inches. An alligator that was killed and left in a Louisiana marsh in the early 1900s was estimated to be over 19 feet long, but that record has long been disputed. The largest size verified for an alligator, based on a statistical analysis of skulls, skins, and live animals, was slightly less than 15 feet.

Q. We live in Florida alongside a canal and lake. Alligators in these waters are not at all intimidated by the presence of humans. They seem to be attracted to children, often coming within several feet of youngsters playing in the yard. I feel that they are a threat to our children and should be removed from the area. They come right up to our deck and sit in the water, watching us closely. If I walk down our boardwalk along the water, they follow. We have heard accounts of alligators coming into backyards; several dogs have been taken by an 8-foot-plus gator. Can these gators be removed?

A. The state wildlife department should be contacted for concerns about so-called nuisance alligators. Though your question could have come from someone in any state with alligators, since you are in Florida, contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Meanwhile, some common sense cautions can help prevent problems with the alligators. Do not let children or dogs play near the water. Do not pick up baby alligators (which will begin appearing in late summer or fall). Of critical importance is the admonition not to feed the alligators. You should also caution others not to do so. Someone in your vicinity probably fed the alligators, which would explain their interest in humans. In addition to creating a nuisance, feeding them is illegal.

As with so many animals throughout the world, even those that may be perceived as a nuisance or even a threat to humans, we should keep in mind that we have invaded their home, not vice versa.

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