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(For the week of April 20, 2009)
The American Alligator
by James L. Cummins

The American alligator, (Alligator mississippiensis), is the largest reptile found in Mississippi. The alligator belongs to the crocodile family and is one of the last surviving members of the dinosaur era. Alligators are found throughout Mississippi’s many rivers, creeks, swamps and lakes, but are most common in Central and South Mississippi.

The alligator can be identified by its large rough back and long, broad snout. Adult alligators are generally black in color and range from 6 to 12 feet in length. The only noticeable difference between adult males and females is size. Adult females will only grow to 6 or 7 feet. Immature alligators may be distinguished by their size and yellowish markings.

The alligator is a reptile; therefore it is a cold-blooded animal. The body temperature of the alligator is directly influenced by the outside temperature which surrounds it. During the winter, alligators will seek dens where they will become inactive for a time. The dens are dug under banks and they usually have underwater entrances.

The alligator thrives in warm weather situations. During warm weather alligators can often be seen basking in the sun. But alligators cannot tolerate long, direct exposure to the sun during extremely high temperatures. When temperatures become extreme, alligators will seek shaded areas or will remain submerged for extended periods. During these periods of hot weather, alligators are mostly active at night when feeding and during the early morning and late afternoon periods.

The bulk of a mature alligator’s diet consists of mammals, turtles, birds, snakes and rough fish. Young alligators will feed on crawfish, small birds and small fish. Hatchling alligators feed on small insects and small vertebrates such as minnows and frogs.

Adult alligators reach maturity at the age of 6 to 7 years. The nesting season begins around late spring or early summer. During this time, the female will use grass and other vegetation to build a nest mound which may be over 2 feet in height and 6 feet across. Once the nest is completed, the female will lay 35 to 40 eggs on top of the nest and then cover the eggs.

The nest becomes a self-incubator because the decomposing nest material produces heat. During the incubation period, which lasts about 65 days, the female will stay around the nest to protect the eggs from predators such as skunks and raccoons. When the eggs are ready to hatch, the female will aid in the process by pushing the nest material aside, and will sometimes crack the eggs open with her mouth. Once the eggs have hatched, the female will take the 7-inch hatchlings into her mouth and carry them to water.

James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a non-profit, conservation organization founded to conserve, restore and enhance fish, wildlife and plant resources throughout Mississippi.