American Alligator at Circle B Bar Reserve in Florida.

Meet the Amazing Alligator



Introduction  |  Taxonomy, Phylogeny & Etymology  |  Distribution & Population  |  Ecology

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An alli gator afloat in water reflecting the gold of a sunset.AMERICAN ALLIGATOR

Alligator mississippiensis


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Reptilia

Superorder: Crocodylomorpha

Order: Crocodilia

Family: Alligatoridae

Genus: Alligator


(Image: istockphoto/LarryLynch)



An alligator swimming with a deer in its mouth.6. Diet & Digestion


Simply put, an alligator will eat practically any prey that contains meat, as long as it is of the right size to seize and kill. Given the plethora of prey available it will, from hatching into adulthood eat insects, fish, crustaceans, frogs and toads, birds, other alligators, snakes, turtles, small mammals, and, if it is hungry and large enough, will capture and eat large mammals as well.


Is this image real? It is. A large alligator can certainly take adult deer or even larger prey. This kind of predation is dependent on the size, health and motivation of the alligator. This photo, along with others of the event, has circulated the Internet with fanciful tales attached to it. Learn the facts, here.

(Image: Terri Jenkins/USFWS)


PREDATION. In its first three years or so, from hatching to juvenility, it will progress from taking smaller prey like insects, crayfish, minnows and frogs, to seizing progressively larger fish and birds, small mammals like mice, rats and rabbits, birds, snakes, and others relative to their size.


An adult gator will accept the same meals, but with its mass and power in its favor, will opt for bigger game if it pleases. Its opportunistic nature, however, usually prompts it to go for moderately-sized prey.


A common belief seems to be that the crocodilian may "store" a prey carcass near the bank of a water body or near a log; until it desires to eat it while such a scenario has no basis in fact. Sometimes prey will be taken by the crocodilian but not eaten, and the carcass will simply float until it is stopped by static obstacle, such as the water bank, a lodged log or vegetation.


VEGETATION. Alligators in captivity have been observed eating fruits and vegetables (including water plants), a behavior surprising to many experts when initially reported; the alligator is an ominvore, predominantly carnivorous.


INGESTION. When taking larger prey, the crocodilian will dismember the body, doing so by spinning furiously on the central axis of its tubular body, in rorder to forcibly detach bone, joint and tendon; the reptile has no ability to use its claws for handling food, so it must rely on powerful jaws and force of body; even gravity will be exploited, by the alligator thrusting its head upwards to let the food slip down its throat. The alligator will also jerk its head from side to side in order to break food, its teeth serving as perforators of the prey flesh.


An alligator with a baby moorhen in its jaws.In the photograph at left, a subadult alligator has taken a young moorhen. (Image: N. B.)


Crocodilians have been observed eating underwater, being able to close the flap to the trachea to block water intrusion, while opening access to the esophagus for swallowing.


The  crocodilian has been known to ingest hard objects such as stones which may serve as gastroliths in the stomach, much as such objects do in the stomachs of birds. The friction of the ingested objects may contribute to the breakdown of food items. The hair/fur of prey items is not digested, but regurgitated by the alligator as a "fur ball", similar to that of a cat.


DIGESTION & WASTE. Eating will mostly or entirely pause during the cold months, since the alligator will experience diminished efficiency digesting food as temperatures drop and the reptile may eat less or cease eating when the temperature dips below 80 F/ 27 C. Enduring without food for a few months is not a problem provided it possesses enough stored fat, as its slow and efficient metabolism will maintain the energy storage until springtime. If the reptile consumes food amid cold temperature, the food cannot digest and sits unprocessed in the digestive system. Food digestion may take several days or up to about two weeks, depending on ambient temperature of the animal's environment. Acid in the stomach breaks down the meat (and bone) ingested. Waste, including urine, is expelled from the body through the cloaca, (Interestingly, the crocodilian has no bladder).


CANNIBALISM. As mentoned above, alligators have such a strong and indiscriminate feeding instinct that they will eat their own kind.



The amateur video above dramatically captures the alligator's cannibalistic behavior.



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