American Alligator at Circle B Bar Reserve in Florida.
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Meet the Amazing Alligator

 

 

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

Anatomy & Physiology  |  Diet & Digestion  |  Thermoregulation  |  Reproduction  |  Neonate Care  |  Ethology

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SPECIES PROFILE

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)

 

 

Cultural & Commercial Impact

 

A large alligator leaps for food at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida.The alligator's ecological importance, as discussed earlier, has a major effect on the natural equilibrium of its region. There are two other aspects to the reptile's commingling existence with humanity worthy of discussion: the cultural effect, the influence upon the local human populations' wants and needs, their likes and dislikes; and the commercial value among a dominant human species which operates its civilization on the basis of the acquisition and trade of monetary units of value, a species which converts resources, human and non-, into currency.

 

Culture and commerce are inextricably entwined in our world, so this discussion overlaps the two subjects. The fact that some are opposed to the commercial use of the alligator as a living (or dead) object, contrasted to the animal's distinction in generating millions of dollars for business enterprises also makes this worth discussing beyond biological consideration.

 

The tourism and recreation draw of the southeastern United States is due partly to the alligator, especially in Florida and Louisiana. Travelers from many countries visit the world-famous alligator attractions, nature parks and other spots to get a close look. Evidence of the American alligator's global popularity, a 2017 study shows that the reptile is by far the most common of crocodilians dwelling in zoos worldwide. The educational value of experiences by zoo visitors is unknown; it may be considerable -- or may be little to nothing, according to a number of studies on the subject which collectively seem to be inconclusive on the matter.

 

Facilities that exhibit captive alligators excel at prompting the big reptiles to move. The large 'gators, shown in the image above, leap for their lunch at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida, which is the oldest facility of its kind in the world. Opened in the late 19th century as a farm and tourist attraction, it is today a renowned zoological park.

 

(It should be noted that while some wildlife parks and zoological institutions are highly conscientious in their care of crocodilians and other fauna, others are not. Visitors should examine carefully the animal husbandry practices and priorities of those facilities they may be interested in patronizing.)

 

A postcard image from CaliforniaAlligator Farm, ca. 1910.Those keen on seeing alligators safely "up close" may find a visit to a natural property more satisfying. The states in the alligator's natural range maintain local, state and national parks where visitors may safely enjoy the purest thrill of experiencing these reptiles living naturallly, behaving naturaly, and interacting with their natural environment. You may find the section. "Where to Observe Them in Their Natural Habitats" helpful in locating a good site to visit.

 

Alligators made their way out west, as far as Los Angeles, at the former California Alligator Farm. The postcard shown at left dates back to circa 1910. (Image: Public domain)

 

"Recreational" hunts, which are very limited in scope and governed by science-based regulation, generate revenue for the state government in the form of fees paid by participants and for the participants in the manner of body products for sale or personal use. The state-run hunting schemes are designed so that only certain sizes, ages and numbers of alligators are taken in a manner consistent with maintaining a healthy population of the reptile.

 

The cultural influence of the alligator is significant. Cultures of today and of centuries past have made the dramatic alligator (and other crocodilians) an important player in the social landscape, be it in religious integration, television and film entertainment, or as the symbol of schools and sport teams, businesses and products.

 

 

Seminole Native children.In this image at right, Miccosukee native children in the early 1900s pose with mounted alligator remains at Musa Isle in the Everglades region of southern Florida. This tribe is very experienced with the alligator, having shared habitat with it for centuries. (Image: Public domain)

 

 

Since post World War II. postcards such as the one seen below exploited the ever-charismatic alligator, as "Sunshine State" businessmen and families opened roadside reptile menageries throughout Florida. (Image: Public domain)

 

A vintage postcard of a woman being "bitten" by an alligator.Consider the popularity of the 'gator in our contemporary scene, where the hulking reptile is symbolic of power, aggression, stamina, or conversely, cuteness and warmth, as well as the embodiment of the character of southern living. Whether pictured on a postcard or candy package, in a Hollywood movie or on a sports jersey, the saurian is a ubiquitous symbol easily recognized and universally accepted, like the grimacing character of the University of Florida's sports programming.

 

 

 

 

 

Florida gator logo.The University of Florida is well-known for its mascot, an aggressive-looking 'gator. (More importantly, the school's biology department is world-renowned for its study of the alligator.) (Image used under Fair Use law.)

 

 

 

 

 

Alligators have been celebrated on the printed page for centuries. More than 200 years ago, European naturalist William Bartram would visit the New World and write grandiose accounts of his encounters with alligators in Florida. No doubt his readers, denizens of perfumed parlors and chilly brick and mortar cities, winced and swooned at his adventures.

 

 

 

Alligators in the St. Johns River. A sketch by William Bartram.

William Bartram

(1739-1823)

 

This sketch by naturalist William Bartram depicts alligators in the St. Johns River in Florida.

 

"Behold him rushing forth from the flags and reeds. His enormous body swells. His plaited tail brandished high, floats upon the lake. The waters like a cataract descend from his opening jaws. Clouds of smoke issue from his dilated nostrils. The earth trembles with his thunder."


- Bartram, circa 1773, describing the American Alligator.

 

(Image above: Public domain.)

 

 

 

The packaging of alligator feces sold as a tourist novelty itme.Controversial among the most animal welfare-sensitive, and lucrative for industry, alligator body products and by-products are the biggest markets for alligator use. Virtually all parts of the animal may be sold: meat, hide, eyeballs (for science labs), skull, mounted head, teeth, feet, osteoderms (the bony plates in its back) -- and even its feces may be sold as a novelty, as evidenced in the image to the left (the originally clumped feces has disintegrated into powder due to the jostling of the package.)

 

An additional and noteworthy by-product is its blood, the proteins of which are being studied and tested for its powerful immunity to disease and infection. Some experts tout potential medicinal benefits from the proteins that will be used in a host of new products, from a quick-healing antibiotic to supposed cures for HIV and AIDS. Experiments in the last few years have identified the alligator embryo's ability to heal its scars by means of a protein named TGFB33. The commercial result is a product for use in the medical and cosmetic industries.

 

PRESERVE OR CONSERVE? Conservationists has long argued, and not without merit, that the crocodilian 'body part/by-product' industry has supported scientific research and bolstered conservation by the taxes imposed on the trade of these products, such levies being spent on efforts at habitat protection and zoological breeding schemes, many of which have proven, quantified and qualified results. Some decry this use of the animals, but the question remains, despite our conflicting emotions: Do we save entire species and habitats, or expend finite resources to preserve individual animals from exploitation?

 

The reality is that in a world of limited resources which is mechanized by a monetary economy, only one option is available.

 

PET INDUSTRY. Expanding the subject of monetary economy, it is important to consider that the commercial industry of breeding and selling live reptiles as companion or hobby animals has flourished in recent years. The popularity of reptile-based television documentaries and "reality shows" has effected gains in the sales of these animals, including crocodilians. Alligators, crocodiles and caimans are not ideal pets, as they grow relatively large and potentially very dangerous, are illegal to own in many areas (jurisdictions) of various countries, including the U.S., and are expensive to maintain, given the requirements of food and ample (and carefully enigneered) space for the growing animal; it should be considered that a 10-inch long hatchling alligator may grow to 12ft/ 3.7m in length and weigh 800lbs/ 363kg! The cost of keeping a crocodilian is especially high in colder climates of the world, where during the frigid season much energy must be consumed in order to keep the ectothermic animal warm. Furthermore, most consumers who purchase and keep an alligator (usually illegally) are unprepared, both materially and mentally, for the challenge.

A young emaciated alligator.

 

The alligator shown at left was rescued from a home in Ohio where it was kept as a "pet"; it suffered from a host of maladies including obvious emaciation. This individual did not survive, despite efforts to save it.

 

 

The result is that, as this author has learned, many of these animals die en route to their destination or later in the custody of the uneducated and unprepared customer, alligators are abandoned by incapable or uninterested owners who vacate their dwellings, some alligators are released when the owner will no longer keep it, or the alligator escapes from the unknowledgeable and inexperienced keeper. In the colder climates, this means certain death for the alligator (or crocodile or caiman) during the cold months and bad publicity for the species when the animals' discovery as nonnatives in residential communities is usually sensationally publicized by the media.

 

Readers may recall the 2005 highly publicized case of "Reggie" the alligator, an escaped or released captive alligator in Los Angeles County, California, which was eventually captured and placed at the local zoo. Valuable resources were utilized over a period of more than a year in attempts to capture the animal. This is merely one case of many; tales of alligators in the sewers of New York City date back decades and there numerous documented accounts of alligators, caimans and crocodiles being found (dead and alive) in the U.S. and Canada, among other countries..

 

'Reggie' the alligator at the Los Angeles Zoo.Pictured at right is the (in)famous "Reggie" the alligator at his home at Los Angeles Zoo in 2014. (Image: Public domain.)

 

 

The most commonly sold crocodilian is the American alligator, and some are legally bred and sold from Florida. While there are no public records on the number of these sold annually, this author, who has monitored this field since 2007, believes the number is at least in the hundreds. It is also this author's opinion that the herpetoculture merchant industry has paid the problem only lip service.

 

Moreover, national shipping carriers, U.S. Postal Service (USPS)  and United Parcel Service (UPS) facilitate interstate transport of baby crocodilians to household-based buyers. The lure of profits from the trade of young crocodilians (not to mention other animals) has resulted in illicit keeping, selling and transport of hatchling crocodilians, as shown in one example in this news media report.

 

You may learn more of this issue on this site at the Distribution & Population chapter (see there the section, "Unnatural' Dispersal"), the species summary on the Spectacled Caiman, and this article by the present author which expands on this subject.

 

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