American Alligator

Latin Name Alligator mississippiensis
Order: Crocodilia Family: Alligatoridae

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

American alligators are found in the southeastern United States: Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas. They’re found in swamps, ponds, lakes, sluggish rivers, and marshes.

Longevity

Ecosystem Role

As predators at the top of the food chain, they help control the population of rodents and other animals that might overtax the marshland vegetation.

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

  • Life Cycle Natural History Relevant Information
    • They can tolerate a reasonable degree of salinity for short periods, and are occasionally found in brackish water around mangrove swamps. That said, they lack the buccal salt-secreting glands present in crocodiles.
    • Alligators spend much of their day basking of shores of rivers and lakes, hidden in vegetation. The tail, which accounts for half of the alligator’s total length, is primarily used for aquatic propulsion. The tail can also be used as a weapon of defense when an alligator feels threatened.
  • Temperature, Humidity, Light Cycles, Water
    • Enclosure should have a place where the alligator can haul out to bask. If housed indoors you need to provide UV lighting.
  • Water
    • Greensboro Science Center: The water is tested for pH, ammonia, temperature every week. Water changes will be 50% every 10 days. Occasionally it will be a full water change. The water goes through a reverse Osmosis filter and is treated with Reptisafe. The tank also has an in-tank filter that is cleaned with the water changes.
    • St. Augustine Alligator Farm: For closed systems, we measure pH, temp, ammonia, and nitrates. Acceptable ranges for ammonia and nitrates should duplicate what the measuring kits denote. PH is not as problematic with crocodilians and can be between 6-8, though we aim more towards neutral or whatever pH the fish need that may be (temporarily) housed with the animal. Reverse osmosis water is not necessary and may be a problem long term as it is nutrient deficient. Chlorinated water does need to be treated before the animal is introduced.There is not a specific water quality manual for crocodilians, but if you follow the recommendations for otters in their husbandry manual, you will be hitting all the bases.
  • Temperature
    • Greensboro Science Center: We keep the water around 84 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Substrate
  • Social Housing/Colony Management
    • St. Augustine Alligator Farm: As crocodilians are social species, I also highly recommend ensuring that your ambassador animal is not housed singly, but has at least one or two buddies. We receive too many unsocialized alligators who have been living by themselves for the first 3-4 years of their lives and have no idea how to associate with others. Please consider this in your animal welfare assessments and see if management can acquire more individuals and larger housing.
  • Other General Housing Requirements or Management information
    • Need a tank at least twice the length of the animal.
    • If housing baby alligators outdoors a cover is needed to protect them from predators.
    • Enclosure is ideally 1/3 land (with the animal having the ability to get completely out of the water for basking) and 2/3 water (water should be deep enough for animal to completely submerge its body and swim)
    • Greensboro Science Center: Tank for baby alligator will be a minimum 40 gallons.
    • St. Augustine Alligator Farm: 40 gallons is small and would only be suitable for a few months tops if fed normally. Rubbermaid stock tanks are easy to clean, secure, and allow for basking opportunities better than an aquarium. The 150 gallon (filled 1/3-1/2 way with water) is sufficient for the first year of life, but the 300 gallon would give the alligators more opportunities and better water quality. You should plan on how to house them well for longer periods of time.

Diet Requirements

Life Cycle Relevant Information

  • Carnivore
  • Feeding activity is governed by water temperature. Foraging will cease if the temperature drops below 68 to 73 degrees. They can easily last the winter on their energy reserves.

Diet in the Wild: In the wild, adults eat fish, turtles, snakes, mammals, and birds. They will also take carrion if it is available and they are hungry enough. Juveniles eat a wide variety of small invertebrates, mostly insects, small fish, and frogs.

Diet under human care In captivity, they are fed carp, rats, and chicken.

Commercial crocodilian chow is available. The small pellets work well for babies and small juveniles. The larger biscuits work for alligators over 3 feet long.

Veterinary Concerns

  • Alligators are susceptible to West Nile Virus.

Enrichment & Training

Enrichment

  • Behavioral Relevant Information
    • Alligators are ambush predators that spend most of their time during the day hiding or basking.
    • They are nocturnal hunters.
  • Environmental Enrichment
    • Logs, sticks or leafy branches, live plants to “hide” under
    • Logs or semi-submerged crates/rocks to bask on in sun or shade
  • Behavioral Enrichment
    • Large (hard plastic) balls (too big to swallow), other things that float in the water that they can not eat
    • Hide food in boxes
    • Running or spraying water is an easy enrichment.
  • Check out the Reptelligence Facebook page and Reptelligence website
  • Schedule
  • Other Enrichment Resources
    • Alligators are ambush predators that spend most of their time during the day hiding or basking.
  • They are nocturnal hunters. Behavioral Relevant Information
    • Include relevant natural behavior information which will help encourage species appropriate behavioral enrichment.
  • Environmental Enrichment
    • Describe environmental/habitat changes made for this species to enrich its home
  • Behavioral Enrichment
    • Running or spraying water is an easy enrichment.
  • Schedule
    • Note frequency/enrichment schedule for this species at your institution
  • Other Enrichment Resources

Training

  • Behaviors Trained
    • Alligators are very smart and take to R+ training quickly. They can be target trained to move to appropriate locations for removal from a tank or for self packing into a crate.
    • A few alligators can be trained to walk on a leash. It requires an animal with a calm, relaxed demeanor. This training should not begin until the alligator is about three feet long.
  • Reinforcers used & schedule of reinforcement
    • Are reinforcers used only while shaping the behavior? Are they used/delivered during programming?

Programmatic Information

Messaging Themes

  • Can talk about danger of releasing non-native animals – Burmese pythons in the Everglades are displacing the alligator as apex predators.
  • In general, animals seen at the zoo do not make good pets. Most have specialized dietary, veterinary, housing, and social needs that are difficult or impossible for even dedicated pet owners to meet. Always ensure that your future pet has not been taken from the wild. Capture of wild animals for the pet trade has significantly damaged the survival prospects of species such as sloths, tamanduas, and many parrots. Captured animals are typically mistreated by profit-motivated traffickers and dealers, resulting in many animal deaths; well-meaning animal lovers may feel like they are rescuing animals by purchasing them but are really perpetuating the cruelty. In addition, many exotic pets are released by their owners when they become too dangerous or demanding, often with devastating effects on local ecosystems. Animals that should never be kept as pets include all bats, primates, and exotic carnivores. Birds, fish, and reptiles have specialized needs, are frequently wild-caught, and damage the local environment if released; guests should be advised to educate themselves and proceed with caution. Domestic dogs and cats are almost always the best option! Many deserving animals are available for adoption at animal shelters.

Threats and Conservation Status

  • A success story! Through habitat protection, commercial captive breeding and other conservation efforts the American alligator was removed from the Endangered Species list.
  • Historically, alligators were depleted from many parts of their range as a result of market hunting and loss of habitat, and 30 years ago many people believed this unique reptile would never recover. In 1967, the alligator was listed as an endangered species (under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973), meaning it was considered in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A combined effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies in the South, and the creation of large, commercial alligator farms saved these unique animals. The Endangered Species Act prohibited alligator hunting, allowing the species to rebound in numbers in many areas where it had been depleted. As the alligator began to make a comeback, states established alligator population monitoring programs and used this information to ensure alligator numbers continued to increase. In 1987, the Fish and Wildlife Service pronounced the American alligator fully recovered and consequently removed the animal from the list of endangered species. The Fish and Wildlife Service still regulates the legal trade in alligator skins and products made from them. Although the American alligator is secure, some related species – such as several different species of crocodiles and caimans – are still in trouble.

Interesting Natural History Information

  • The American alligator is generally olive-brown to black in color. Juveniles are essentially miniature versions of the adults, but they have bright yellow cross-bands on a black backgrounds (disruptive coloration.) They have a broad, flat head with a rounded snout. The bottom teeth are not visible when the mouth is closed. Their short, sturdy limbs end in webbed feet with sharp claws.
  • Females reach sexual maturity when they are about 6 feet long. Males and females engage in a courtship ritual before breeding. It involves low-frequency bellowing, which travels great distances in water, advertising an individual’s presence. There is also head-slapping on the water surface, transmitting visual and aural messages. Complex body postures communicate additional information, which is reinforced with odor from paired musk glands everted from under the chin and from the cloaca. Near the end of the courtship, both animals will engage in a bout of snout and back rubbing. Overall, this courtship can last for several hours, and is thought to help synchronize both spermatogenesis (sperm production) and ovulation (release of eggs from the ovaries.)
  • After breeding, the female will build a nest of vegetation, sticks, leaves, and mud in a sheltered spot in or near the water. She will lay 20 to 50 white, goose-egg-sized eggs, and then cover them with more vegetation. The vegetation, like mulch, heats as it decays, helping to keep the eggs warm. The temperature at which alligator eggs develop determines the sex of the hatchlings. Males develop in temperatures ranging from 90 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit, and females develop in temperatures from 82 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Intermediate temperatures will yield a mix of both males and females. The eggs will develop for 65 days, and the female will remain near the nest to protect it from predators.
  • When the young begin to hatch, they emit a high-pitched croaking noise, and the female hears this and starts to dig her young out of the nest. She will stay with her young for their fist 1 to 3 years.
  • American alligators can live on average to 50 years. The record is 65 years, but that death was accidental. They may be able to live for as long as 100 years.

Did you know…

  • Adult males typically reach lengths of 13 to 14.5 feet, and females can get to just under 10 feet long.
  • While alligators travel very quickly in water, they are generally slow-moving on land. That said, they do have the ability to sprint at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour for short distances. Alligators are capable of killing humans, but they generally fear humans enough to avoid them as prey. They are far less dangerous than the infamous Nile crocodile and saltwater crocodile. Alligator bites are serious injuries due to the risk of infection.
  • Alligators’ broad, heavy heads are adaptations to living in heavily vegetated swamps. A heavy head has more momentum to help catch prey by smashing through thick vegetation.
  • When ponds and swamps inhabited by the American alligator freeze over, the larger alligators survive by lying in shallow water and breathing through a hole in the ice. This is called the “icing response.” Occasionally, alligators may be trapped completely below the ice, and have been known to survive for over 8 hours without taking a break, because the freezing water slows their metabolic rat down to very low levels.
  • Alligator is derived from the Spanish el lagarto which means “the lizard.” Mississippiensis means “of the Mississippi (River),” derived from mississippi + ensis (Latin for “belonging to.”)

Handling & Presentation Tips

  • As alligators grow older, they will become increasingly difficult to restrain, handle, and present. Have a disposition plan in place before adding this species to an ambassador collection.
  • It works best to get very young alligators and begin handling for short periods of time.
  • Rocking or gently bouncing the alligator will calm it down. This method even works on larger alligators.
  • When picking up a gator from the water it is best to grasp the animal gently from the top, then rotate the hands under the chest and pelvis before lifting it out of the water. This makes the animal less likely to struggle when picking it up.
  • Binghamton Zoo at Ross Park: Can be difficult to restrain depending on size.
  • BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo: Small alligators are easy for almost any handler, but once over about 3 feet long, they require an experienced handler, especially during summer when they are most active. Only rare individuals can be safely handled over 6 feet long. “Rescue” alligators often have behavioral issues.
  • Maryland Zoo in Baltimore: Good temperaments, but they grow quickly.

Use Guidelines

  • Do you have any special guidelines or restrictions on use of this species; i.e. indoor only, presented on table only, needs a day off after two days of programs, not used during any period of the year, other restrictions for handlers or use?

Public Contact and Interaction Guidelines

  • Do you allow public contact with this species, and in what settings and manner? Note touching techniques, where necessary.
  • Note other unique ways the public is able to interact with this species, whether they can touch or not. i.e. do you allow feeding, do you have a unique display for meet and greets (share photos), can the public participate in a training session, etc.

Transportation Tips

  • Describe or share photos of your carrier setup
  • Note any changes you may make for seasonal transportation

Crating Techniques

  • How do you set up your carrier/crate for transporting this species safely and comfortably

Temperature Guidelines

Acquisition Information

Include SSP PL contact information, where relevant.

Many alligators that come to zoos are rescued illegal pets. These animals may be fearful or aggressive, but sometimes can be handled if you have the time to invest.

Resources

  • IC contact – list Maureen‘s email to contact to find out who their IC is
  • SSP PL contact, if applicable?
  • Animal handling protocol samples
  • Temp guidelines sample
  • AA evaluation tool
  • Scheduling templates/protocols
  • St. Louis Rubric
  • Equipment supplies (crates, covers, leashes, etc)

Contributors and Citations

  • The Philadelphia Zoo
  • Notes from comments gathered from completed PARIS rating sheets
  • Baton Rouge Zoo
  • Greensboro Science Center

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