American Alligator at Circle B Bar Reserve in Florida.
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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)

 

 

Skull of Alligator prenasalis.Taxonomy, Phylogeny & Etymology

 

The American alligator (scientific name: Alligator mississippiensis) is a reptile among the class of snakes, lizards, turtles, tortoises and the lizard-like Tuatara. It is one of about 26 crocodilians in the world, an order which includes another, smaller alligator from China, about 15 tropical crocodiles scattered about the globe, six alligator-like caimans from the South and Central Americas and the tropical slender-snouted gharial and Tomistoma crocodiles. You may review a complete list, and learn the basics of taxonomy and its Latin word use, here.

 

 

The skeleton shown above is of the earliest known Alligator, A. prenasalis, found in South Dakota and kept at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH 4994). (Image: Smokeybjb)

 

It's origins in the evolutionary timeline began with the Archosaurs --"ruling reptiles" -- about 200 milion years ago from which ancient and modern Crocodyloformes, through a clade called Pseudosuchia (and modern birds from the other branch, Ornithosuchia), derive. The Eusuchia sprang from the ancient stock about 100 million years later, the modern crocodilians of today. Six true Alligators are recorded, of which only two survive today. Recent research suggests that fossils of various ancient alligators may actually be those of A. mississippiensis displaying adaptations over time -- without evolving into another species-- and thus the living species may date back seven to eight million years.

 

The French zoologist François Marie Daudin named the species in 1801, Crocodilus mississipiensis, and his colleague Georges Cuvier renamed it Alligator mississipiensis in 1807. Shortly after the turn of the 21st century the community of crocodilian specialists corrected the misspelling of its river namesake (by adding a "p") to its current binomial name: Alligator mississippiensis.

 

The genus name, Alligator originates in the Latin word, "lacerta" referring to the human arm, the features of which superficially resemble a lizard-like animal. The word translated to Spanish as "lagarto" ("lizard"), to the popular phrase "el lagarto" ("the lizard"). English-speakers, entering a New World inhabited by Spaniards, phonetically turned the term into a single, similar-sounding word: "alligator". In contemporary international parlance, the name, "alligator", even among some Spanish-speakers, seems to have become the base word used to name the animal.

 

The species name (written in Latin, the taxonomical language for biologists) is mississippiensis, which literally means, "of the Mississippi"; this refers, of course, to the longest, most popular river in the southeastern United States.

 

The reptile is also referred to in North America as, "gator", "Florida alligator", "Mississippi alligator", "Pike-nosed alligator" and "Pike-headed alligator", though all but the first two are nearly obsolete (in this author's opinion). Some Latin Americans refer to the American alligator as, "Caiman" (Spanish) or "jacare" [or yacare], a general Portugese term in Brazil, as these are the names of the alligator's cousins native to Latin America. People from other foreign countries may refer to the species generically as "crocodile".

 

Among the alligator's closest extant cousins, even closer than the crocodile, are the other Alligatorids, the caimans of the south and central Americas who share the family grouping in scientific nomenclature due to their multiple shared characteristics; you may find the taxonomical list of Crocodylia to be of help in understanding the relationships of the alligators, caimans, and other crocodilians One of these caimans inhabits parts of southern Florida as a nonnative.

 

There is one species, however that is the only other member of the Alligator genus -- sinensis,Chinese Alligator photographed at the Cincinatti Zoo. the Chinese Alligator. Research has revealed that the alligator relatives crossed a northern land bridge millions of years ago, resulting in the two distantly separated locations of this genus that we see today. This species grows to only about half of its American cousin's potential size and it is nearly extinct in the wild in China due to hunting and habitat encroachment by Homo sapien.

 

Pictured above is a specimen of the rare and endangered Alligator sinensis from China, the only other known extant (living) alligator species.  (Image: Greg Hume)

 

 

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