After being asked many questions about alligators, I decided it would be a good time to write a little bit more about this often misunderstood and feared reptile.
I will always remember the first time I saw my first alligator; I was about 9 years old, and it was at a German zoo. The slanted eyes, the big teeth and the long tail - all together this creature was fascinating and scary and occupied my mind the whole way home.
Alligators still capture my attention whenever I'm near water. The good thing is, I no longer have to go for long car rides in Europe and they are no longer in cages when I get to observe them.
Here in Florida it is a good rule of thumb to assume alligators are present in any body of water.
As humans we are often convinced gators are spending their days just waiting for us to dip our feet into the water so they can strike. However, 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 compared to approximately 2698 deadly car crashes a year. I always tell people I am much more afraid of traffic than wildlife. In fact, I do not fear wildlife, I fear losing it.
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 led to the first endangered species success story. As their numbers in population increased, they were removed from the list 20 years later. Alligators are a keystone species, which means 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.
One of the most amazing facts I learned about alligators was after I came across one these reptiles sunbathing on a log. I noticed a stick perfectly balanced on its snout. I couldn't understand why. It turns out that gators display this behavior only during nesting season of herons and egrets. The small wading birds fly around looking for the perfect stick and all the alligator has to do is sit still to have a meal. This shows they are much more intelligent than we give them credit for. Alligators have a natural fear of humans but become dangerous when they are fed by people. Common sense is required to be able to coexist with them: Avoid areas where "tame" alligators are reported, no swimming (or walking near) in water around feeding time around dusk and dawn. Keep your pets away from the water as alligators don't know the difference between pets and wild animals.
Let's stay safe while respecting and observing this amazing predator.
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Linda Wilinski is a certified Master Naturalist and Springs Ambassador who sees herself as the bridge between humans and nature, raising awareness through her pictures.