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)



8. Reproduction


COURTSHIP. Alligators begin courtship as the cool temperatures of winter give way to the warmer, more comfortable air and water of spring. The time of year depends on the location, as the temperature varies, especially from north to south; so, 'gators in North Carolina may be a few weeks behind the schedule of their relatives in the Everglades. At this point, their first priority is to fill their bellies after the relatively long period of partial or total fasting. Once this fasting has been broken (though they continue to eat at will, of course), their next priority is several weeks of courtship, followed by the mating of generally agreeable partners. (Courtship behavior is discussed in more detail in the section, "Ethology".)


An alligator becomes sexually mature when it reaches a length of about 6 ft./ 1.8m, and will seek a mate when courtship season arrives with the warming of spring in March, continuing until June (at least by Florida temperature standards). Relatively complex alligator courtship rituals have been well studied, and are comprised of bodily postures, movements, touching, secretion of musk, and vocalization. The musk scent of the alligator, which smells (to this author) a mixture of pungent and sweet, is excreted from a pair of glands just under the lower mandible and another just inside the ventral slit called the cloaca, located just forward of the hind legs.


COPULATION. Water must be deep enough for the alligators to copulate, Copulation involves the male turning its body about 1/4 turn of axis toward the female with its genital member meeting the cloaca of its mate. The ejection of semen seems to be done at will rather than by local stimulation. The total time of copulation may be only a few minutes. In both sexes, the genitalia are located within the cloaca, which is a small slit found on the ventral (bottom) region of the body just behind the rear legs.


Larger, more powerful males tend to dominate a territory reproductively, although females may be fertilized by multiple males. A 2009 study revealed that 70% of the females tended to remain 'loyal' mates to a single male.

An alligator egg and chicken egg.


This image compares an alligator egg's size and shape (at left) with that of a chicken.


NESTING. A mother alligator will begin building her nest in June, usually doing so close to the water but building it to remain relatively dry. The nest mound, about 3 ft/1m high and twice that size in diameter, is constructed of vegetation debris and soil/mud, the top of which she will scoop out and in which she will lay an average of 35 eggs.


The preserved, deforemd head of young alligator.The materials and placement of the nest ideally provide adequate heat and moisture. If the nest temperature is too high or low for an extended period, the developing young may die or may hatch with deformed bodies. Embryos can die from prolonged water intrusion, too.


The preserved, deformed head of a juvenile alligator is shown in the image at right; such misshape may occur due to extreme temperatures in the nest.


Clearly, unpredictable, unusual fluctuations in the climate can wreak havoc on alligator nests. The health and survival of the embryos depend heavily, even in the subtlest of measures, on mother's intuitive nesting skills.


Hatching occurs about 73 days later, with the young breaking free from their eggs and "pipping" or chirping to their mother for assistance. The alligator mother is a most attentive one, and will help her progeny to water by carrying them in her mouth and releasing them in their new liquid environment.




The video above shows a female alligator in the process of laying eggs in her nest at night.



MATERNAL CARE. Protection of the nest by the mother alligator is a serious business. The mother will rarely stray far from the eggs and will warn, or attack if necessary, any animal that approaches it. There are reports of alligator mothers performing great feats of "courage" and "audacity" in their nest-guarding. One alligator was reported to have jumped into the boat when biologists mahaged to take her eggs into their watercraft, and another lept and hissed at a helicopter as it prepared to land near a nest! A video posted to the Internet showed footage from a wildlife/trail camera that captured the scene of a mother alligator vigorously fending off an adult Black Bear (Ursus americanus floridanus) that showed interest in her nest.


The subject of the care for the young once they have hatched is discussed in the "Neonate Care" section.




Two alligators courting in Florida in springtime.


When courting each other, alligators...kiss?


In a manner of speaking, yes.


Alligators seem to 'enjoy' rubbing snouts, which contain along the edges of the jaws many tiny, very sensitive, button-like domes called integumentary receptors. The image above was captured in June in northern Florida - well into mating season.



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