After being asked many questions about alligators, I decided it would be a good time to write a little bit more about these often misunderstood and feared reptiles.
My parents took me hours and hours away from home when I was little, the whole way there I couldn't stop thinking about seeing my first alligator at a German zoo. The slanted eyes, the big teeth and their long tail - all together this creature was fascinating and scary and occupied my mind the whole way there.
Alligators still capture my attention whenever I'm near water. The good thing is, I no longer have to go for long car rides and they are no longer in cages.
Here in Florida it is a good rule of thumb to assume alligators are present in every body of water. A good amount of people are convinced gators are spending their days waiting for us to dip our feet into the water so they can strike. Alligator fatalities remain minimal considering how many people swim, snorkel, dive, tube here all year around. Florida has about 1.3 million alligators and there have been 24 fatalities in 60 years vs. approx. 2698 deadly car crashes a year. Yet we have no hesitation getting into our vehicles every day. As dramatic and horrific as these alligator attacks are, we humans have done much larger damage to these creatures. Some of us might not be comfortable with the thought that something much larger than us could cause us harm. But isn't this also a reminder that we aren't top of the food chain and that maybe we should respect these animals that have roamed the earth for over 200 million years?
Gators were almost hunted to extinction and came under federal protection in 1967. This lead to the first endangered species success story as they were removed from the list 20 years later. Alligators are a keystone species, which means we actually need them as they are extremely vital to the environment. I call them "Masters of Balance". They consume aquatic turtles but turtles also nest together with the alligators to be protected from predators. Alligators eat fish, but they also provide them with a home by creating gator holes that hold water during drought. These fish, in return, serve as a nesting and feeding ground for birds. If gators were to disappear, everything would collapse with them. Another example of an overlooked keystone species is the gopher tortoise. It might not be as cute and adorable as a little fawn or a baby racoon, however the gopher provides a habitat for over 350 species, including endangered ones such as the indigo snake and the burrowing owl. If the gopher disappears, so will everything else.
So back to the alligators. Paddling the Wekiva River one morning in early spring, I learned one of the most amazing fact about them. I came across one these reptiles sunbathing on a log which is nothing unusual, however I noticed a stick balanced on it's snout. I couldn't understand why it would not simply push it off. It turns out that gators display this behavior during nesting season of herons and egrets. These poor birds fly around looking for the perfect stick and all the alligator has to do is sit still to have a meal. It absolutely blew my mind how intelligent these creatures are.
Alligators have a natural fear of humans. They only become dangerous when they are fed by people. Common sense is also required to be able to coexist with them: Avoid areas where "tame" alligators are reported, no swimming (or walking near) in water at dusk or dawn. Keep your pets away from the water as well as alligators do not know they are part of human families.
Let's stay safe while respecting and observing the amazing American Alligator.