Alligators contribute a lot more to the environment than you may think. (Courtesy: The Southern Company)



Tim: They’re not pets, that’s for sure. That’s the big thing. Everybody thinks ‘cause they’re in captivity, they’re friendly. They’re not friendly at all. They’re a marvelous animal, though. They’re the last of the dinosaurs. I mean, you know, you wanna see a dinosaur, come to Florida; you can see dinosaurs all over the place. We can trace back the alligator about 18 to 20 million years. Crocodiles can actually trace back about 200 million years. That’s right near the end of the Jurassic era. 

I now call ‘em reptilian raccoons, cause the daggone things have gotten so used to human encroachment that before they used to run off and human pressure kinda chased ‘em away. Now these guys have adapted so well that we’re just finding ‘em all over the place. So they’re just like raccoons. 

We can sit on this old man. He’s pretty good about this. This, these bony structures that you see up here, these big high bony structures, those are called osteoderms and this is highly vacillated. And this allows the sun to come down and strike this dark color, absorb the heat, get it into the bone, and it helps regulate his body temperature. 

The eyes on alligators and crocodiles are really remarkable structures. The nostrils out on the end of the nose allows ‘em to stick just that part out of the water and then they can keep all the rest of the body under and stick just the eyes up. So they can smell, get a breath of air, they can see what’s going on around them. And if something were to hit their head, or attack ‘em, or if they were charging after something and banged their head, they just literally pull the eyes down in the skull and then they’ll pop back up. This animal could probably have over 3,000 pounds per square inch crushing power. 

During our wrestling show, the animal handlers are holding onto the gator’s mouth and they’ll say, “What’s the most dangerous part of the alligator,” and people will shout out, “The tail.”

Crowd:  The tail!

Handler:  All right! For those of you who didn’t figure it out, take a real good look at him right now. Which end of this thing am I holding onto?

Tim:  That’s, I think, the common misconception. They will use this as a weapon. They can hit you with it. But we don't spend a whole lot of time worrying about the tail. We have a saying here: “This part’ll beat ya, and this part’ll eat ya, and there’s a big difference between the two.” 

The Spanish explorers came over here and I can only imagine what it was like walking through these swamps and you see something this big sits up and bellows in the morning and he’s got water vapor coming out of his mouth. It looks like a fire-breathing dragon. Bellowing’s probably the most dynamic thing they do. 


They take in a big breath of air and then they resonate that through their body and it creates this -- this infrasound that goes through. We can't pick it up. It’s a low frequency sound, plus a growling, roaring-type sound that we can hear.


In the wild, that infrasound that they put out may travel for miles across a lake or a swamp, so another alligator knows that there’s another one in the area and they can find each other and hopefully reproduce and create our babies.


Males and females bellow. The males get what we call a water dance. The droplets of water actually vibrate and come up off their bodies and it’s quite a thing to see. And it’s one of their ways of establishing themselves and communicating and saying, “Hey, I’m here. Here I am.” And quite often you’ll see it more during the springtime when they’re -- they’re frisky and they’re going into the mating season.


When they go into courtship, they’ll swim up to each other and the males and females will touch noses and rub very gently against each other. 

This is a brand-new little baby alligator, just a little teeny guy. And if this is a male -- I don't know if it is or not -- but if this is a male alligator, this little fella right here could grow up to be 14 feet long and weigh 800 lbs. And when you take something that fits in the palm of your hand that can grow up to be that big, I find that to be fascinating. 

Alligators are very important to us, especially in Florida. They eat up a lot of carrion. They eat up a lot of animals that are dead floating in old waterways. They furnish food for other animals through baby alligators and alligator eggs. They also dig holes. During our dry season, gator holes, as they’re come to be called, these are holes where water collects and it saves things like little fishes and little minnows, animals can come down like the birds, etc., and catch food to eat. They get drinking water there. Then when the rains come back, there’s a little minnow that lives in these little holes called a Gambusia.  When they breed, all those little babies and all those fish come out and they eat the mosquito larvae. So it helps us with our mosquito population. 

Expert:  Crocodilians are important animals in an ecological sense. In the case of, for instance, the southeastern United States, the alligator is the last great predator that’s still in place in its natural ecosystem. We’ve killed off the bears, the wolves, the mountain lions, that sort of thing. This is a predator that is still serving the function that top-level carnivores serve, which is maintaining a control on prey population levels and reducing competition between those prey species so that you can have more species living within an ecosystem. Alligators are large animals and they’re powerful and they shape the environment that they’re in. So, for instance, they’re capable of breaking up mats of floating vegetation. They’re capable of deepening ponds during periods of drought. And so the loss of alligators in a natural community may actually result in the closing in of wetlands, the wetland lakes becoming marshes or closing off as prairies. So they can have drastic effects that we really don't understand all the possibilities of.



NATURAL SOUTH: Crocodilians
Learn more about crocodilians in this episode of the Natural South.