QUESTIONS ARE ON THE RISE
brings out questions about reptiles, which have spent most of their
time in a dormant state since autumn. I recently received the following
questions, one of which is a perennial one. They all pertain to American
My son and I were fishing near Charleston last week on the first really
warm day since last fall and saw a large alligator lying on the shore
of a lake. Why would it sit motionless with its mouth open? It was that
way when we saw it, so it wasnt a show for us.
Years ago James Spotila, now a professor at Drexel University, conducted
a study on mouth gaping by alligators to determine why these big reptiles,
as well as crocodiles, will sometimes sit motionless with their mouth
open while they are basking. The behavior has no apparent relationship
to the presence of other alligators or humans. Previous studies on Nile
crocodiles had proposed that gaping was a form of thermoregulation to
lower body temperatures. However, Spotilas study suggests that
the behavior primarily lowers only the temperature of the head and brain.
The researchers discovered that the open-mouthed display is a mechanism
for keeping head temperatures of the animal in equilibrium while the
rest of its body is being warmed by the sun during periods of cool air
the physiological process may be different, mouth gaping in an alligator
serves as a cooling mechanism similar to a dogs panting. To appreciate
how long it can take to get a scientific explanation for a commonly
observed phenomenon, consider that mouth gaping by Nile crocodiles was
first reported in writing in the 5th century BC.
Who should I call about an alligator about 4 feet long that has come
out along the shore of a lake in our neighborhood? We tried throwing
something at it, but we cant get close enough because of the chain
link fence between us and the lake.
My suggestion is that you call your friends to come look at it and enjoy
being able to see one of these awesome creatures outside of a zoo. Im
not sure why throwing something at it would be a good idea, as you would
only scare it away. The wildlife departments of most states, including
Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina where alligators occur
naturally, generally do not have time to respond to calls about small
alligators. An alligator of that size is no threat to a human or even
to medium-size dogs.
A friend from Alabama said she heard alligators bellowing from a river
swamp. Do alligators really do this?
Yes. Alligators do make deep, resonant vocalizations, especially in
the spring when they mate. Also, they are native to southern and central
Alabama. I once heard an alligator bellowing along the Black Warrior
River near Tuscaloosa. An adult alligator makes a rumbling sound, much
louder and more guttural than a bullfrog, which might also be heard
calling in any eastern state.
sense the vibrations of a bellowing alligator if you are standing close
enough. Female alligators also make a thundering noise. I have heard
one pair vocalizing for days during the spring. My impression is that
the female is responding to the males bellows. Either would make
a bullfrogs call pale in comparison. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service provides audio of bellowing alligators at fws.gov/video/sound.htm.
For comparison, you can hear what a bullfrog and other southern frogs
and toads sound like on the University of Georgias Savannah River
Ecology Lab website at srelherp.uga.edu.
for maintaining a high diversity of wildlife is that many species boost
our enthusiasm for the natural world by stimulating curiosity. Alligators
clearly spark peoples interest, and the high volume and variety
of questions people ask about them is a positive sign that people are
curious about our native wildlife. And that is good news for the wildlife.
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