American Alligator at Circle B Bar Reserve in Florida.

Meet the Amazing Alligator



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

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

Survival  |  Human Conflict  |  Cultural & Commercial Impact  |  Conservation


Prime Observation Locations  |Bibliography  |  Filmography  |  Suggested Publications  References



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)



10. Ethology (Psychology/Behavior)


The alligator is more intelligent than non-experts seem to expect, and along with its fellow crocodilians is the most intelligent of the reptiles. The subject of this animal's ethology spans most of the sections of this alligator profile, so this section will summarize and highlight a few additional points, with an emphasis on social behavior.


MEMORY & MOTIVATION. The crocodilian brain facilitates relatively acute memory storage and recall, thus enabling it to repeatedly recognize many of the same concepts and "cues" that, for example, a dog can. Such might include basking location, common threats and known individual animals, including other alligators. Captive alligators and crocodiles have been taught to recognize their given names, commands to "come", "stay" "go" as well as individual keepers' voices and apparel. Operant Conditioning, as developed by psychologist B.F. Skinner, has been applied to the training of crocodilians, using the animal's dominant motivation as its basis. The basic methods used include negative and positive reinforcement, and imposition (not of the abusive kind, but rather a hindrance), usually involving a feeding event, as such is an effective and efficient means.


A crocodilian's behavior can be modified and refined, or "shaped". (This fascinating field of study has been applied even to less inltelligent reptiles, such as the snake and turtle.) Such conditioning has revolutionized captive care of animals, reducing stress on them and even preserving their lives in especially challenging situations. Addtionally, it has made animal husbandry and study much safer for keepers.


DESENSITIZATION. The crocodilian is capable of desensitization in the wild, and such can be carefully developed for its benefit when in the care of humans. Desensitization involves the animal's gradually losing fear or apprehension of something or someone in its environment, much like as humans experience it. Its sensitivty to objects in its environment, living or non-, is impressive. An alligator may become desensitized to a complex artificial environment, such as one that may be experienced living in a zoo enclosure, but the change or addition of a single major - and sometimes minor - element (such as a nearby parked motor vehicle, a new guest viewing area at the enclosure containing a group of people, a human in a wheelchair, or even a nearby hot dog cart) becomes a foreign and strange presence and will likely generate apprehension in the reptile until the element is determined, through experience, to be of no threat. Keepers can manage such changes in a way that minimizes stress. Familiarity is key.


In contrast, consider a worst-case scenario, related to this author, of a group of healthy, subadult crocodiles in a zoo enclosure, all of which died within hours of the beginning of nearby construction work carried out with the use of large, loud and intimidating heavy equipment, such as tractors. The crocs had no way of fleeing the perceived danger, nor coping with the extreme sensory effects which  stressed them. The physiological result was a build-up of stress hormones -- lactic acid in crocodilians -- which eventually terminated the reptiles' lives.


SLEEP. Crocodilians are typically light sleepers, always ready to respond to the approach of potential danger. An exception is the case of a large bull alligator formerly under the care of this author at a wildlife park in Florida, which once, on a cool day while lying warmly in direct sunlight, fell into a sleep so deep that it was feared he was dead; it took about 10 seconds of hands-on, physical agitation to his head in order to wake him, as repeated audial stimuli, foot-stomping near his head, and light prodding with a wooden pole to parts of his body did not stir him. When he came to, he was obviously "groggy", as evidenced by his half-closed eyes and shallow hiss of response. The alligator showed no sign of illness, before or after, so it is unlikely that such was the cause of his lethargy.


One speculates that he slipped into this deep sleep because he learned over a few years in his safe enclosure that there was no danger to be expected, and he had become desensitized to the harmless presence of park visitors. A study of the species has shown an absence of the NREM-like (NREM is "Non-Rapid Eye Movement") state during sleep, so this individual animal's depth of slumber may have been due, at least partially, to low blood pressure caused by the cool weather.


An alligator at the water's surface, photographed from underwater.HUNTING. Like other animals the alligator instinctively understands its visual relationships to other animals in its environment, and its body, resembling the tubular husk of a naval submarine, facilitates stealth hunting, the obscuring of its body from sight. The 'gator floats at the water's surface, only its eyes and nostrils visible -- easily mistaken by potential prey for bubbles or floating detritus.


This alligator is seen from underwater floating in stealth hunting mode, like a submarine with only  its periscope (eyes) and ventilation shaft (nostrils) barely above the water's surface.


It is well understood that the crocodilian uses its jaws to capture prey, but few seem aware of the animal's use of the tail. Experts' eyewitness reports describe the alligator using its tail to corral fish for eating; the gator will position itself in shallow water against a small lagoon bank and will flex its body laterally into a "C" curve, pulling one or more fish toward its jaws.


TOOL USE? Experts have observed alligators in bird rookeries positioning their heads/jaws at the water's surface beneath a stick or twig, having learned from observation that during a specific time of year -- bird nesting season -- birds will fly down to retrieve floating detritus, which serves as nest-building material. When a bird descends toward the item a quick snap from the lurking gator may result in an easy meal for the reptile. This is a remarkable display of event memory (observation of markedly increased bird activity for nesting) and object association (birds retrieving floating twigs and sticks). Some experts refer to this advanced behavior of the alligator as one of using the sticks and twigs as "tools" -- implements used to accomplish a specific task.


This mental skill of the alligator is stimulated also in "target training" by crocodilian experts, in which an object such as a short pole with a colored tip is associated with a reward of food. The difference in the bird rookery is that the alligator idenitfies and utilizes the detritus without human induction. An impressive feat for this modern species of the ancient archosaurian line.


A bull alligator shown bellowing at the water's surface.VOCALIZATION. The alligator, like other crocodilians, uses vocalization to communicate. A number of sounds are emitted by the alligator, such as the grunt, "pip", growl, bellow, hiss and "wet snort" - blowing air at the water's surface (similar to a bubble-blowing action addressed below). While the animal does not have vocal chords, it pushes air through its husk of a body up the trachea and out through the gular flap at the back of its maw, the vibration of the various parts of the body along this air path creating the sounds. The bellow of a 'gator creates such fine, high-frequency vibrations that the flanks of the 'gator's body will cause water to vibrate intensely and give the water the appearance of "dancing" as that in a fountain does.


The bull alligator in the image above is posed in mid-bellow.

(Image: istockphoto/floridastock)


Water being a natural conveyor (and amplifier) of sound both on its surface and within, the alligator emits vocalizations at its surface to announce itself across a marsh, swamp, lake or other water body, and the sound helps each gator identify its neighbors and their locations on the plane above the water. Such vocalizations may also be used to warn, such as a mother warning an intruder who approaches her babies, or a male, threatening another alligator in a display of dominance. A young alligator will grunt or "pip" to its mother if it sense danger or feels insecure.


This author observed in 2005 a pair of large bull alligators fighting to the death, and the defeated, in the throes of pain, vocalized in distress using the same grunt call it cried in its youth -- as if calling for its mother (The pattern, "notes" and cadence were the same as that of a youngster, except that the pitch, as expected, was much deeper). This event may be testimony to the power of the mother-offspring imprinting process that occurs early in many animals, including humans.



Sound and Fury

Listen to alligator vocalizations.

PLAY   speaker icon  Bellow

PLAY   speaker icon  Deep bellow

PLAY    speaker icon  Deep hiss


Files in MP3 format. Audio courtesy of USFWS.



POSTURE & GESTURE. The alligator's suite of behaviors, including vocalization, posture and gesture, is relatively complex. An adult will situate itself on an optimum display site and perform actions including a headslapping or jawclapping at the water's surface (mostly by males); bowing the body upward, head to tail; growling; bubble-blowing; subaudible emission (males only); bellowing; tail wagging; and body inflation, in which it bloats the upper body as a display of presence.


COURTSHIP. These behaviors are quite remarkable to experience for an observer, especially during courtship season in the presence of many alligators, when their bellows, sometimes accompanied by the smell of musk excretion, sound out in strange cacophany. Biologists have studied alligators at night during courtship season gathering in open water for a kind of 'ballroom social event' during which alligators of opposite sex will meet and pair off for further interaction together.


In the image below, a pair of alligators, blanketed in duckweed, are engaged in physical interplay; the activity was photographed in late spring in central Florida.


Alligators in courtship.There is reason to believe that a favorable sensation results from the touching of the jaws, which contain many very sensitive pressure "buttons", each called an "integumentary sensory organ" (ISO), as is discussed in the section, "Anatomy & Physiology". This author suspects this since alligators rub snouts during courtship (see the section, "Reproduction") and because experienced keepers have reported that the rubbing of the (unfastened) jaws of alligators very desensitized to human handling seems to have a calming effect on the animal (this author is not commending the practice to anyone, given the potential danger). The ISO's are used in hunting in low-light or no-light conditions, in which the alligator may feel the movement of prey in the water at a distance. (Interestingly, the hide of crocodiles features these ISOs on much of the body, not just the mandibles.)


ENRICHMENT. Professional keepers of the alligator have learned that the species enjoys the use of a "bite toy", perhaps similar to the use of a "chew toy" by a dog. Professional keepers have devised various ways to keep a captive crocodilian's artificial habitat enriching to the alligator mind, such as by placing food items in various spots of the enclosure, including by hanging it from above (by cord or rope) so that the reptile must launch from the water to acquire it. The appeal to the alligator's sense of well-being - of trying to recreate the challenges and experiences of its natural environment -- elicits feeback from the animal which offers observers a glimpse into it's mind.


BIRD BRAINS? Nest building, care of the young, vocalizations, jaw-clapping, posture and gesture, use of the jaws to carry nesting material, and  tool use -- it should come as scant suprise that these crocodilian behaviors resemble those of birds, considering that crocs and avians are distantly related through the mighty Archosaurian line, as mentioned in the "Taxonomy & Phylogeny" section.


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