An alligator is a crocodilian in the genus Alligator of the family Alligatoridae.
The name alligator is an anglicized form of el lagarto, the Spanish term for "lizard", which early Spanish explorers and settlers in Florida called the alligator.
Alligators have a variety of successful adaptations to their ecological niche that have allowed these reptiles to remain almost unchanged since the Cretaceous.
The alligator is notorious for its bone-crushing bites. In addition, the alligator has been described as a "living fossil", having been extant for 200 million years, beginning in the Mesozoic Era.
A large adult American alligator's weight and length is 800 pounds (360 kg) and 13 feet (4.0 m) long, but can grow to 14.5 feet (4.4 m) long and weigh over 1,000 pounds (450 kg). According to the Everglades National Park website, the largest alligator ever recorded in Florida was 17 feet 5 inches (5.31 m), although according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission web site the Florida state record for length is a 14 feet 5/8 inches (4.28 m) male from Lake Monroe in Seminole County. The largest specimen ever recorded was found in Louisiana and measured 19 feet 2 inches (5.84 m). The Chinese alligator is smaller, rarely exceeding 7 feet (2.1 m) in length. Alligators have an average of 75 teeth.
There is no measured average lifespan for an alligator. A specimen named Muja has resided in the Belgrade Zoo in Serbia since 1937, making it at least 73 years old. Another specimen, Čabulītis, in Riga Zoo, Latvia died in 2007 being more than 75 years old.
Alligators are only native to the United States and China.
American alligators live in freshwater environments, such as ponds, marshes, wetlands, rivers, lakes, and swamps, as well as brackish environments. Southern Florida is the only place where both alligators and crocodiles live side by side.
The Chinese alligator currently is found only in the Yangtze River valley and is extremely endangered, with only a few dozen believed to be left in the wild. Indeed, far more Chinese alligators live in zoos around the world than can be found in the wild. Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in southern Louisiana has several in captivity in an attempt to preserve the species. Miami MetroZoo in Florida also has a breeding pair of Chinese alligators. The St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park has successfully reproduced Chinese Alligators and been fortunate enough to release some of their offspring back into the wild in China
Large male alligators are solitary territorial animals. Smaller alligators can often be found in large numbers close to each other. The largest of the species (both males and females), will defend prime territory; smaller alligators have a higher tolerance of other alligators within a similar size class.
Although alligators have a heavy body and a slow metabolism, they are capable of short bursts of speed, especially in very short lunges. Alligators' main prey are smaller animals that they can kill and eat with a single bite. Alligators may kill larger prey by grabbing it and dragging it into the water to drown. Alligators consume food that can not be eaten in one bite by allowing it to rot, or by biting and then spinning or convulsing wildly until bite-size chunks are torn off. This is referred to as a "death roll." A hard-wired response developed over millions of years of evolution, even juvenile alligators execute a death roll when presented with chunks of meat.
Critical to the alligator's ability to initiate a death roll, the tail must flex to a significant angle relative to its body. An alligator with an immobilized tail cannot perform a death roll.
Most of the muscle in an alligator's jaw evolved to bite and grip prey. The muscles that close the jaws are exceptionally powerful, but the muscles for opening their jaws are comparatively weak. As a result, an adult human can hold an alligator's jaws shut barehanded. It is common today to use several wraps of duct tape to prevent an adult alligator from opening its jaws when handled or transported.
Alligators are generally timid towards humans and tend to walk or swim away if one approaches. This has led some people to the practice of approaching alligators and their nests in a manner that may provoke the animals into attacking. In the state of Florida, it is illegal to feed wild alligators at any time. If fed, the alligators will eventually lose their fear of humans and will learn to associate humans with food, thereby becoming a greater danger to people.
When young, alligators eat fish, insects, snails, crustaceans, and worms. As they mature, progressively larger prey is taken, including larger fish such as gar, turtles, various mammals, birds, deer and other reptiles. Their stomachs also often contain gizzard stones. They will even consume carrion if they are sufficiently hungry. Adult alligators can take razorbacks and deer and are well known to kill and eat smaller alligators.
In some cases, larger alligators are known to ambush dogs, Florida panther and black bears, making it the apex predator throughout its distribution. As humans encroach onto their habitat, attacks are few but not unknown. Alligators, unlike the large crocodiles, do not immediately regard a human upon encounter as prey, but may still attack in self-defense if provoked.
Alligators generally mature at a length of 6 feet (1.8 m). The mating season is in late spring. In April and May, alligators form so-called "bellowing choruses". Large groups of animals bellow together for a few minutes a few times a day, usually one-three hours after sunrise. The bellows of male American alligators are accompanied by powerful blasts of infrasound produced by sacs in their chins. Another form of male display is a loud head-slap. Recently it was discovered that on spring nights alligators gather in large numbers for group courtship, the so-called "alligator dances".
In summer, the female builds a nest of vegetation where the decomposition of the vegetation provides the heat needed to incubate the eggs. The sex of the offspring is determined by the temperature in the nest and is fixed within 7 to 21 days of the start of incubation. Incubation temperatures of 86 °F (30 °C) or lower produce a clutch of females; those of 93 °F (34 °C) or higher produce entirely males. Nests constructed on leaves are hotter than those constructed on wet marsh and, thus, the former tend to produce males and the latter, females. The natural sex ratio at hatching is five females to one male. Females hatched from eggs incubated at 86 °F (30 °C) weigh significantly more than males hatched from eggs incubated at 93 °F (34 °C). The mother will defend the nest from predators and will assist the hatchlings to water. She will provide protection to the young for about a year if they remain in the area. The largest threat to the young are adult alligators. Baby alligators have an egg tooth that helps them get out of their egg during hatching time. Predation by adults on young can account for a mortality rate of up to fifty percent in the first year. In the past, immediately following the outlawing of alligator hunting, populations rebounded quickly due to the suppressed number of adults preying upon the new recruits, increasing survival among the young alligators.
Alligators are the only non-avian species shown to have one-way breathing, although presumably similar measurements for other crocodilians (not yet done) would show unidirectional air flow in them as well. All other non-avian amnionts have dead-end breathing. In dead-end breathing the air flows into the lungs through branching bronchi which terminate in small dead-end chambers called alveoli. The air moves in both directions through the bronchi. In alligators the air makes a circuit through the lungs moving in only one direction through the bronchi. The air first enters the outer branch moves through the lungs in small tubes called parabronchi and exits the lung through the inner branch. The parabronchi are where the oxygen exchange takes place.
They have a muscular flat tail that propels them while swimming.
There are two kinds of white alligators, albino and leucistic. These alligators are extremely rare and practically impossible to find in the wild. They could survive only in captivity. As with all white animals, they are very vulnerable to the sun and predators.
In leucistic alligators all of the pigment genes are defective not just the melanin gene. This makes them white white with blue eyes. The Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans has leucistic alligators found in a Louisiana swamp in 1987.