All About Alligators

By Diane Bedard Posted on July 28, 2022

With multiple alligator attacks in Florida recently, NatureCoaster wants to help you learn all about these amazing reptiles, as well as how to stay safe should you encounter one in the wild. While an average of three alligator attacks has been recorded annually since 1948 in Florida, each attack is more frightening.

The number of alligator attacks appear to be increasing dramatically in Florida over the past few years.

Across Florida, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is investigating sixteen attacks so far in 2022, with less than seven months of data!

There were twenty-one alligator bite incidents reported in Florida in 2021. Nine of them involved an unprovoked alligator! Still, the likelihood of a Florida resident being seriously injured during an unprovoked alligator incident in Florida is roughly one in 3.1 million, according to FWC.

There are ways to minimize the possibility of attacks on you or your pets, and it is important to know them.  This dramatic increase in the number of alligator attacks leads one to think the destruction of their native habitat for housing and commerce has caused this native apex predator to move into neighborhoods, swimming pools, and other public gathering areas where they would not have been seen before. Building on marshlands is building on an alligator’s natural habitat.

american alligator
American alligators are most comfortable in water. They eat fish, reptiles, invertebrates, birds and mammals. They are opportunistic feeders. photo: Tim Donovan, FWC

Alligator Facts

The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), lives in freshwater ponds, lakes, slow moving parts of rivers, and marshes. They generally do not go into saltwater but have been seen in brackish water throughout Florida’s coastal areas.

They have been in this area for over 8 million years, making the term “living dinosaur” accurate. In 2016, a Miocene fossil skull of an alligator was found in Marion County, Florida.

Alligators are reptiles. They are cold-blooded and hatch from eggs. The warm themselves in the sun.

They generally become sexually mature by the time they reach 6- 7 feet in length. Courtship begins in early April, and mating occurs in May or June. Then the female adult makes a nest, usually along the banks of a freshwater pond, slow-moving river, or lake, and lays her eggs.

american alligator
Htchlings have yellow bands around their bodies to help camouflage them. Image courtesy of FWC

Hatching occurs in late August or early September. The sex of the hatchlings is determined by the temperature at which they germinate.

The hatchlings look just like their parents, just tiny and have yellow bands around their bodies to help camouflage them from predation.

Momma gators are very protective of their nests and their hatchlings, so if you see alligator eggs or babies, steer clear!

Adult gators range in size from 6-12 feet on average, with nineteen feet as the maximum. Can you imagine a nineteen-foot alligator?!? The typical weight for adult American alligators is 440 – 770 pounds! Their shape ranges from long and slender to short and chunky, but all of them have a broad snout and a lot of teeth – 74-80 teeth to be exact.

These prehistoric reptiles may be olive, brown, gray, or black as their primary color from the top. They naturally camouflage with their environment and have several rows of ‘scoots’ or scales along their topside all the way down their tail.  The gator’s underside is cream colored with smooth scales. They have four short legs with “feet” that feature strong, sharp claws and they can run up to 35 miles per hour on land.

alligator swimming
FWC photo by Andy Wraithmell

In the water, a gator ‘swims’ by moving its pelvis and tail, giving it real power and speed to catch its aquatic prey. American alligators are designed to hunt and capture prey in water.

American Alligators in Florida

This is Florida’s state reptile. With approximately 1.3 million alligators, Florida is home to the second largest population of American alligators in the U.S.

Today, they are Federally protected by the Endangered Species Act as a Threatened species because they look so much like the American crocodile. Before the 1950s, alligators we so overhunted for their hides and meat that they were an endangered species with concern for their extinction.

Today, Florida’s Alligator Hunts help manage adult alligator populations. The statewide recreational alligator hunting season runs from Aug. 15 through Nov. 1 each year. Permits are issued to harvest two alligators in state or private waters of the county your permit is issued for. The Florida Recreational Alligator Hunt program is recognized as a model nationally and worldwide for wildlife management.

Seeing Alligators in Florida

Often seen in manmade lakes and ponds, on golf courses and in retainer ponds for subdivisions., they can be viewed hovering in the water, with their snout and eyes just visible, sunning themselves on fallen trees or alongside bodies of freshwater, and even walking from one body of water to another.

american alligator
It is always exciting to see an American alligator in the wild. FWC photo by Andy Wraithmell

It is always exciting to see an alligator in the wild. While their diet primarily consists of fish and invertebrates, birds and reptiles, a hungry alligator has been known to consume mammals and becomes a nuisance gator if it predates upon a pet or worse yet, a human!

Alligators who have been fed by humans begin to associate eating with people. That is a very dangerous combination, so please, don’t feed any alligators! It is illegal to feed alligators in Florida.

Safety Around Alligators

Florida Fish and Wildlife has created this simple video to help learn how to be safe around alligators in Florida. It is quick and simple, with some interesting footage.

Living with Gators video by Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Meanwhile, follow these safety tips to avoid having problems with an alligator

  • Never feed an alligator.
  • Keep your distance if you see an alligator – no selfie is worth your health.
  • Swim only in designated swimming areas during daylight hours.
  • Keep pets on a leash and away from the water.

If you are chased by an alligator on land, run as fast as you can away from it. You don’t have to run in a zig zag pattern. Alligators are designed to hunt and kill prey in the water, and will likely lose interest quickly.

Alligators are opportunistic feeders that will eat animals that are readily available to them. They prefer to go after prey they can overpower easily.

Opportunity is the primary factor that causes an alligator to pursue prey.

Most alligators are naturally afraid of humans but may lose that fear when people feed them. Feeding alligators teaches them to associate people with food. For that reason, it is illegal to feed wild alligators.

Alligators seldom bite people for reasons other than food.

female american alligator
Female American alligators open their mouths and hiss to warn intruders to stay away! FWC photo by Andy Wraithmell

Females may protect their nests by hissing and opening their mouths to frighten intruders but rarely bite people.

Alligator bites are most likely to occur in or around water. Bites on humans have occurred in a variety of water bodies, many of which are small and not regularly used by alligators.

Although alligators can move quickly on land, they are not well adapted for capturing prey out of the water. However, they can lunge at prey within a few feet of the shoreline.

Alligator bites can result in serious infection. Victims should seek immediate medical attention if bitten.

What to Do if you are Concerned about an Alligator

If you are concerned about an alligator, call FWC’s toll-free Nuisance Alligator Hotline at 866-392-4286. An alligator is deemed a nuisance if it is at least 4 feet in length and it is believed to pose a threat to people, pets, or property. If smaller alligators wind up in swimming pools, garages, etc., they are also considered a nuisance alligator and must be removed. 

Catching a nuisance alligator. photo: Tim Donovan/FWC

If you call the Nuisance Alligator Hotline, Florida Fish and Wildlife will dispatch one of their contracted nuisance alligator trappers to resolve the situation.

Where to See Captive Alligators in Florida’s Nature Coast

It is always safest to see an apex predator with a fence between you and the predator. You can see what they look like with your own eyes, but don’t have to risk your life for the viewing. Here are a few places around Florida’s Nature Coast where you can see American alligators for yourself.

Sources for this story include Wikipedia and Florida Fish and Wildlife Service


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