June 2007

Getting to Know an Alligator

Author: Natalie Hefter

A common sight in the Lowcountry is an alligator basking in the sun along the banks of our ponds and lagoons. For newcomers and visitors, this can be a little surprising. Historically, though, this was not always the case. Alligators were depleted from many parts of their range because of hunting and loss of habitat. Thirty years ago, many believed this unique reptile would never recover. First listed as an endangered species in 1967, the American alligator was removed from the endangered list in 1987, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pronounced a complete recovery of the species. Today, the alligator is a common Lowcountry resident.

Although alligators can grow to a length of 19 feet, the largest in our area are closer to12 feet long. They are found most often in fresh water swamps, lakes and lagoons, but on occasion, you will see an alligator in the salt marsh, usually when it’s on the move, looking for a new home—or a girlfriend. In the spring, males can be heard bellowing loudly to attract females and ward off other males.

After mating, the female builds a nest of vegetation, sticks, leaves, and mud in a sheltered spot near the water. After she lays her 20 to 50 eggs, she covers them under vegetation, which keeps the eggs warm as it decays. The temperature at which the eggs develop determines their sex. Those eggs which are hatched in temperatures ranging from 90–93 degrees Fahrenheit turn out to be male, while those in temperatures from 82–86 degrees Fahrenheit will be female.

Once they’ve hatched, juvenile alligators will form pods and stay together for protection; they will remain close to the mother for one to three years. Juveniles eat small invertebrates, particularly insects, and small fish and frogs. As they grow larger, their dietary range increases in size and variety.

After recent news reports, alligators earned an unwarranted bad reputation. As long as you keep your distance from the animal, they will normally avoid you. Most important for your safety and the alligator’s is to make sure that you and your neighbors do NOT feed any alligators. Once a gator associates a human with food, it can become aggressive and dangerous. If an alligator is determined to be a nuisance, it will be removed from its home and usually killed, so it’s best for the alligators to just leave them alone. If you see someone feeding an alligator or somehow harassing one, you should contact your local security office or official.

Watching an alligator bask in the sun is truly a Lowcountry experience that should be enjoyed—at a safe distance, of course!

Natalie Hefter is Vice President of Programs at the Coastal Discovery Museum.

The Coastal Discovery Museum hosts a “Getting to know a gator” program every Thursday in the summer (June 7–August 23). You can learn more about these interesting creatures and have a photo opportunity with one, too! These programs will be held at the new pole barn at Honey Horn (intersection of Hwy. 278 and Gum Tree Rd.) at 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. The cost is $12 for adults and $7 for children (ages 4-12).
For reservations, call 843-689-6767 or visit www.coastaldiscovery.org to make secure reservations online.

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