Slowly but surely over the past few years, I’ve been working on a book about alligators in the Lowcountry. (Mom, if you’re reading, yes, I’m STILL writing it!) And as you can imagine, I’ve collected quite a few interesting facts about these toothy reptiles. I thought I’d share a few of my favorites with you. Here you go:
1. Alligators are kick-ass mothers. They guard their nests as their eggs incubate inside and protect their hatchlings, which start life on the bottom of the food chain, for a year or better after they hatch. She even carries the babies in her toothy jaws. If a mother were to become separated from her nest (killed or removed by a human or killed by another alligator), the little ones are doomed.
2. Alligators, and other crocodilians, have a four-chambered heart (that’s one more chamber than other reptiles). And when the alligator dives under water and holds its breath, the heart redirects blood flow in such a way that allows the animal to remain submerged for up to six hours.
3. In winter when temperatures drop, alligators dig holes into the banks of ponds and rivers. They don’t hibernate in the literal sense of the word (only mammals truly hibernate), but their cold-blooded bodies slow way down and remain dormant until the weather warms up.
4. Alligator eyes shine when light hits them at night. Behind the retina, a reflective layer called the tapetum works like a mirror. I’ve been told that you can tell the animal’s sex by the color of the eye-shine, which varies from a red to orange and yellow colors. I haven’t found any research to support that though.
5. Alligators are ambush predators, and their signature kill move is known as the death roll. So when they’re hunting, they lie completely still, often at the bottom of the river or pond. Hundreds of tiny pits along their jaws sense vibrations in the water, so they can literally feel their prey getting closer. And when the hapless fish or whatever gets within range, the alligator strikes. When they go after larger prey, such as a deer, they rip it to pieces and may even store the carcass and feed off it for several days.
6. Alligators are tender lovers who bellow and shake and dance to attract mates. (Oh, how I long to see one do this in real life: alligator bellowing.) And when the male has found the right girl, they swim together and nuzzle each other in an affectionate display of courtship, alligator style.
7. Alligators regulate their own populations through cannibalism. Big alligators eat the little alligators, which prevents the population from getting bigger than the ecosystem can handle. So in a way, there can never be too many alligators.