My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Things Your Mother Never Told You About Alligators

Alligators are an important part of the ecosystem in wetlands from Texas to Florida.. They almost became extinct but, once again, the voice of the alligator is heard in the land. And if you look closely, you can find many alligators hiding in canals, ditches, bayous, lakes and swamps, usually with only their eyes and nostrils sticking out of the water. Sometimes you can only see a little bit of movement in weeds. Even our most urban streams have alligators and a small pond can harbor a largish one. You should never let your dog, even a big one, go into water in alligator territory. They have been known to take dogs from unfenced yards along canals or bayous.

Sunning alligator

 Alligators  managed to survive when the dinosaurs were killed off and  have not had to evolve much since then, which gives scientists a lot  to think about as they try to solve the secret of their success.

Some interesting facts about alligators include:
  • They have four-chambered hearts like mammals, allowing them to swim for long periods of time. 
  • They have no sex genes. so the males are as genetically strong as the females. Sex is determined by the temperature during the first ten days of embryo development. -  Temperatures above 89°F usually produce all males while cooler temperatures usually produce both males and females or all females (at/below 86°F).
  • Alligators have about 80 teeth and can replace them when lost. No dentists needed. They can do this throughout their lives. They go through 2-3000 teeth  in a lifetime. 

Alligator showing teeth
  • Alligators can bite with 2000 pounds of pressure compared to a person which can only get a pressure of  170 pounds. But the muscles used to open their mouths are relatively weak and you can hold their mouths closed with your hand.

  • Alligators have a protein  in their blood that has potent and broad spectrum antibiotic properties. This discovery may lead to a whole new class of antibiotics for humans.
  • Alligators only eat when its warm. They can survive cycles when food is hard to come by this way. (Thus it's safer to be around them in the winter when, even if they are sunning, they probably are not eating.)
  • The largest documented alligator was taken in 1890 from Louisiana. It measured 19 feet 2 inches and probably weighted nearly 2,000 pounds. Most of the alligators I see are under 8 feet. 
  • You can estimate the length of an alligator by estimating the distance from a point just in front of the eyes to the nose.  This distance in inches translates to the length of the alligator in feet. 
  • Mother alligators make a nest on land and defend it.  It is made of vegetation which rots and produces heat for the eggs. When the baby alligators start to hatch, the mother digs them out and carries them to water in her mouth.. Mothers defend their babies for at least a year, but the babies have to feed themselves from birth. Check out this wonderful video from National Geographic.

Mother carrying babies  (
In my thirty plus years of paddling around alligators, I've only met one aggressive one - a mother guarding her nest. She let me and a guy I was guiding through the pass into Miller Lake, but didn't want to let us back out. I finally found a path far enough away from her that she sank, and let us pass. But the most dangerous alligator is one with eggs or small babies.

This is discounting the alligators who almost ran across my boat to get into the water when  I paddled too close to the bank and startled them. That behavior is flight behavior, not aggression,  but  you should never paddle close to a bank or both you and the alligator will have an adrenaline rush and the alligator could dump your boat.  One of my friends had a little four foot alligator jump off the bank and land in his canoe.  He, of course, promptly jumped out.

A young alligator - probably a three year old - that posed for us.

This is usually the most you see of an alligator, and sometimes only their eyes and nose

I do have a story I tell as my scariest alligator story, though.  Before I retired, my favorite volunteer job was spraying water hyacinths at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, in  the ditch around Shoveler pond. One day I had been out there totally alone for several hours, spraying from my canoe, and was on the bank filling up my sprayer with more herbicide. Suddenly a big red truck raced to a stop behind me and a big, young scary guy, all covered with tattoos, jumped out and came running toward me. Then he started yelling, "do you know there are alligators in there?"  At that point I figured I was going to live so calmly replied,  "Yes. They just sink when I get near them."

And alligators can be the savior of their habitat in times of drought.  They dig their holes at the bottom of bayous and ponds deeper.  Sometimes everything but the alligator's hole dries up and that water sustains the rest of the animals  in the area until the next rain. When the drought at Anahuac got so bad that the channel around Shoveler Pond almost dried up, alligator holes in the bank appeared. I sometimes saw birds go down in these holes, probably looking for water and food.

This alligator had to go house hunting when his pond dried up during the 2011 Texas drought. Many alligators were killed by cars that year while crossing highways in search of water.

On a personal note: I'm rushing to finish up a project of painting Natalie's front steps. I still have 2-3 more hours of getting the old carpet adhesive off. Then I have to paint at least one coat. I probably won't get this finished until next week because today is going to be very cold for us and I may not want to have to put on long underwear, coats, hats, and gloves. (Yesterday I was still in shorts and a shirt and the temperatures were in the mid 70's).

And I'm packing up for my trip to Louisiana to paddle in the Atchafalaya Swamp.  Three guys and I will be camping at Lake Fosse Point State Park and doing day paddles there. I have to be ready by Wednesday evening because I'm doing a Christmas bird count on Thursday before leaving on Friday.  Last night I  made turkey gumbo to feed everyone for Saturday  supper.  It's the last of the Thanksgiving turkey.

But I'll have lots to tell you when I get back The Atchafalaya Swamp is one of my favorite places  and over the years, I've done many paddles there. Hulin and I even spent 4 days paddling and camping there over a Thanksgiving weekend.