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Alligators-Frequently Asked Questions



How Are Alligators Classified?

Class: Reptilia/Order: Crocodylia/Family: Crocodylidae/Genus: Alligator

Are Alligators Reptiles?

Alligators are reptiles.  Reptiles are classified as air-breathing vertebrates with epidermal scales covering all or part of their body.  They reproduce via internal fertilization and amniotic development.  Additional defining characteristics are a single occipital condyle (where the skull attaches to the first vertebra), a distinct quadrate bone (bone beneath the lower base of the jaw articulating it with the skull, and ribs attached to the sternum.

Is an Alligator a Lizard?

The alligator is not a lizard. Both belong to the class Reptilia, but the lizard belongs to the order squamata with snakes while the alligator belongs to the order crocodylia.  The word “alligator” comes from the Spanish el legarto, which means, quite simply, “the lizard.”

How Many Species of Alligators Are There?

There are currently only two species remaining on Earth– Alligator mississippensis (American alligator) and Alligator sinensis (Chinese alligator). [1]


How Big Do Alligators Get?

The larger of the two species, the American alligator’s size is dependent on age and sex.

At birth, hatchlings are about 8-12” in length and will grow between 2-12” per year depending on sex, age, and habitat.  Female growth will begin to slow as the alligator reaches sexual maturity. A fully grown adult female averages 9 feet in length and can weigh more than 200 pounds.  The fully grown male averages 13 feet and can weigh more than 500 pounds.  The largest alligator discovered to date was more than 19 feet long! [2]

In contrast, the Chinese alligator generally ranges in size from 4-5 feet.

What Is the Size of the Largest Recorded Alligator?

To date, the largest recorded alligator measured 19 feet 2 inches and the heaviest was 1043 pounds. [3]

Can Alligators Hear?

Alligators can hear very well both on land and under water.

Can Alligators See?

The alligator can see in daylight and darkness because the alligator eye has a cell layer called the tapetum lucidum, which means ‘bright carpet’ in Latin The tapetum lucidum reflects light into the photoreceptor cells and improves the quality of an alligator’s vision in dim and dark conditions.

Does an Alligator Make a Sound?

The alligator makes a variety of sounds in order to communicate with other alligators.  For example, baby hatchlings will emit a high-pitched noise called a ‘yerp’ when they are ready to emerge from their shells.  Adult alligators will frequently bellow to one another and will make noises called ‘chumpfs’ during courting. [4]

How Many Teeth Do Alligators Have?

Alligators have 80 teeth, which can be replaced up to 50 times in a lifetime. Unlike humans that are only capable of regenerating two sets of teeth, alligators have lifelong tooth renewal. [5]

Do Alligators Have Brains?

One thing the alligator is not is a big thinker.  Alligators have very small brains.  So small in fact, its brain would fit into one-half of a tablespoon. [6]


Where Do Alligators Live?

Geographical Distribution. American alligators populate the southeastern United States, ranging from central Texas to North Carolina. Louisiana currently has the highest population of alligators at nearly 2 million. [7]

The Chinese alligator can be found in the Yangtze River region in China.

Habitat. American alligators inhabit areas with a water source such as lakes, ponds, rivers, and swamps.  They have also been known to inhabit areas of brackish waters and saltwater if necessary.  In Louisiana, the highest population of alligators inhabits coastal marshes. [8]

Do Alligators Live in Salt Water?

Alligators prefer to live in freshwater, but they have been known to wander into saltwater areas for a short period of time, especially if in search for a food source.  They will live in brackish waters which are waters that have more salinity than fresh water but not as much as seawater.  [9]

Do Alligators Live in Ponds?

Alligators can be found primarily in the calm water of swamps and marshes, but they will also reside in ponds, rivers, and lakes.  Any body of water that provides a food source is a possible home for the alligator, including brackish water such as coastal marshlands.

Do Alligators Live in North Carolina?

The American alligator does live in North Carolina.  Its range is primarily along the coastal regions of southeast North Carolina.  [10]


What Do Alligators Eat?

Alligators are primarily carnivores and will eat amphibians, fish, birds, and mammals.  The fact is, they are opportunist feeders meaning that they will eat whatever is easiest and made available to them. The sex of the alligator seems to factor in to their diet choices as well.  Female alligators seem to prefer mammals while male alligators seem to prefer reptiles. [11]

What Do Baby Alligators Eat?

Baby alligators primarily feed on insects, amphibians, small invertebrates, and small fish.

Do Alligators Eat Alligators?

Alligators are also carnivores.  It is estimated that up to 5% of the juvenile alligator population becomes the meal of other alligators. [12]

Do Alligators Eat Humans?

Humans are not considered a primary food source for alligators, but as mentioned they are opportunistic feeders and will eat anything that is made available to them.   They go for easy prey and generally give up on prey that fights back or is difficult to capture.  Over the last 10 years, there have been 13 fatal alligator attacks on humans. [13]

Do Alligators Eat Snakes?

Alligators do eat snakes.  Interestingly, the reverse is true. In Florida, a 13-foot Burmese python burst when it ate a 6-foot American alligator. [14]

Do Alligators Eat Dogs?

You just need to read any newspaper in Florida or Louisiana to see that alligators commonly eat dogs. Alligators can lurk for hours out of sight waiting for an easy meal to unknowingly wander by.  They have also been known to climb fences to get at penned in dogs. [15]

When Do Alligators Feed?

Alligators primarily feed at dusk or at night. When they feed is also dependent on the temperature. They are most active feeders at a time of year when their metabolism is highest at temperatures between 82°F-92°F.  They will generally stop feeding if the temperature drops below 70°F.

How Often Do Alligators Eat?

In the summer, when their metabolism is highest, alligators usually eat once or twice per week.  They will stop feeding when the temperature drops below 70°F. [16]

Alligator Behavior

How Fast Can Alligators Swim?

According to the San Diego Zoo, an alligator can swim up to 20 MPH. That’s 4 times faster than the fastest recorded human.

Can Alligators Climb Trees?

Though alligators are not known for climbing trees, they do climb and have scaled fences up to 5-feet tall.

Can Alligators Jump?

Using their powerful tails to propel them forward, alligators can jump up to five feet out of the water to lunge at prey.

Do Alligators Hibernate?

If temperatures drop low enough, alligators will participate in hibernating behaviors.

Though most active at temperatures between  82°F-92°F, alligators will stop feeding when the temperature falls below 70°F and will become dormant at temperatures below 55°F.  They will dig a ‘gator hole’ close to a source of water and remain there while in a state of dormancy.

How Long Can Alligators Stay Under Water?

Large adult alligators can stay under water up to 45 minutes. The amount of time they can remain submerged depends upon their size and the water temperature. [17]

In the colder months, when their metabolism slows, they can stay under water for up to 24 hours. [18]

Will Alligators Attack Swimmers?

Though attacks on humans are not common, an alligator is an opportunist feeder and will eat anything that presents itself, including a swimmer.

Can an Alligator Climb a Fence?

An alligator can climb a fence.  Here’s a great photo to prove the point. (Alligator climbing fence)

Alligator Reproduction

Mating Rituals: Alligators are egg-laying reptiles that reproduce through sexual reproduction.  Mating rituals begin in April when the males attempt to attract the females through bellows and head slapping gestures.  Once they have paired off the courtship begins and will end with mating in May. The male will fertilize the eggs inside of the female. [19]

Nesting Behaviors: The female alligator will spend the next month or two building a nest in which to lay her eggs.  She will lay a clutch of 35-40 eggs, more or less depending on her age and health. For the next 65 days, she will vehemently guard her nest to protect her eggs.  Unfortunately, fewer than 70% will survive predation.

Egg Development: Between days 20-35 the sex of the hatchling will develop based on the outside temperature.  The optimal temperatures to produce an equitable number of both males and females is 86°F and 91°F.  Temperatures lower than 86°F will produce all females.  Temperatures higher than 91°F will produce all males.



What Is a Baby Alligator Called?

A baby alligator is called a hatchling.  For the first year, hatchlings generally stay together in a pod.

Do Baby Alligators Stay with Their Mother?

Baby alligators stay with their mother for at least a year.  It is not uncommon for a hatchling to remain with its mother for the first 3 years of its life. [20]

When Are Alligators Considered Adults?

Alligators are called adults when they reach sexual maturity, which is when they reach 6 feet in length.  This is generally around age 10.

What Is a Group of Baby Alligators Called?

A group of baby alligators is called a pod.

Life Span

How Long Do Alligators Live?

Most estimates average the alligator lifespan to be 35-50 years in the wild, and up to 65+ years in captivity.

What Is the Oldest Recorded Alligator?

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of North American Reptiles and Amphibians lists Mujo, an alligator living at the Belgrade Zoo in Serbia as the oldest alligator on record at 76 years old and still living.

Alligator versus Crocodile


What Is the Difference between an Alligator and a Crocodile?

Alligators can primarily be distinguished from crocodiles by the anatomy of the jaw and teeth. Whereas alligators have a U-shaped, broad snout, crocodiles have a V-shaped jaw.  When the jaw of the alligator is closed, only upper teeth are visible in contrast to the crocodile that prominently displays the fourth tooth from the bottom jaw overlapping the top.  [21]


Resources: 8/8/2013

[1][21]Encyclopedia Britannica

[2] [7][8]Department of Wildlife and Fisheries State of Louisiana
General Alligator Information

[3]National Estuarine Research Reserve System
American Alligator Alligator mississippiensis

[4] University of Michigan-BioKids
Alligator Mississippiensis

[5] Keck School of Medicine of USC
Alligator stem cell study gives clues to tooth regeneration

[6]Kids Discovery
Are Alligators Really Dinosaurs?

[9] Smithsonian National Zoological Park
American Alligator

[10] Amphibians and Reptiles of North Carolina
American Alligator

[11][12] Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission; Delany, M.
American Alligator Food Habits in Central Florida

[13]”Croc, Gator Attacks Far Outpace Sharks : DNews.” Discovery News. Web. 17 Apr. 2015. .

[14] “Photo in the News: Python Bursts After Eating Gator (Update).” National Geographic. National Geographic Society. Web. 17 Apr. 2015. .

[15] Gibbons, Whit. “ALLIGATORS AND DOGS DON’T MIX.” Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. University of Georgia, 12 June 2005. Web. 17 Apr. 2015. .

[16][17] “Gator Facts.” Texas A&M Agrilife. Texas Parks and Wildlife. Web. 17 Apr. 2015. ..

[18] “Plants and Animals: Interesting Facts.” Web World Wonders. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.

[19]University of Michigan
Alligator mississippiensis

[20] “Alligator Habitat | How Do Alligator Families Live?” Florida State University. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.

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