ALLIGATORS MAKE LIFE INTERESTING

by Whit Gibbons

April 19, 2015

How big do alligators get, how long do they live, and how fast can they run when chasing a person? I am asked these questions every year, especially by new residents moving to a region where alligators occur naturally.

Alligators, the largest of our native resident reptiles, have also inspired the following questions.

Q: My nephew asked me if alligators can jump over a fence. I thought I heard once that they could. Can you answer this one for us, please?

A: Alligators cannot jump over fences from the ground, but I have seen alligators up to 6 feet long climb over both chicken wire and chain-link fences. I'm not sure how high they can climb to get over a fence, but certainly several feet. Also, I saw crocodiles in Australia jump at least 8 feet straight up out of a river to grab meat dangled from a pole, but they used their tails to propel them from the water.

Q: Can you please help us with some information. We need to know what baby alligators and baby crocodiles are called.

A: They are referred to as hatchlings when first born and juveniles later, but they have no other special name. I have asked a few herpetologists to suggest a name but haven't gotten an answer from anyone yet. I suppose "gatorling" might work for alligators and "crockling" for crocodiles. But until those terms catch on, they'll continue to be called baby alligators and baby crocodiles.

The eyes of male and female alligators are yellow with a black pupil. What your daughter may be referring to is eyeshine, the reflection from some animals' eyes in the dark. The reflected color can range from deep ruby red to orange to yellow.

Under some conditions the reflection is visible more than 100 yards away. The eyes of big alligators seem to me to appear deep red whereas smaller ones are more often yellow, but this can vary. Male alligators get bigger than females, but I am not aware of any inherent difference between the eyes of males and females.

Q: A friend said she heard male alligators bellowing somewhere in southern Alabama during a recent trip. Is this true? Could the noise she heard simply have been bullfrogs?

A: Could have been either, depending on when and where she was. Alligators do make deep, resonant vocalizations, especially in the spring when they mate. An adult alligator makes a rumbling sound, much louder and more guttural than a bullfrog, that you can practically feel if you are standing nearby. I have heard bellowing from a large male alligator (over 12 feet) and a female (9 feet) that live in a pond in South Carolina; both the male and female may bellow for several days during spring.

My impression is that the female is responding to the male's bellows and that she is actually louder. But either would make a bullfrog's call pale in comparison. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides audio of bellowing alligators at www.fws.gov/video/sound.htm. You can hear what a bullfrog and other southern frogs and toads sound like on the SREL website at www.srelherp.uga.edu. You can also find the answers to the alligator FAQs given at the beginning of this column.

A seldom-mentioned reason for maintaining a high diversity of wildlife in the world is that many species keep the human spirit alive by spurring curiosity. Alligators clearly spark people's interest, and the high number and variety of questions people ask about them are positive signs.

When people express wonder about any kind of native wildlife, the species in question is stimulating awareness, which helps keep people interested in their surroundings. And the more interested people are in the environment, the more interested they are in protecting it.

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