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,
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)t'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
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
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,
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:
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
seems to have become the base word used to name the animal.
The species name (written in Latin, the
taxonomical language for biologists) is
literally means, "of the Mississippi"; this refers, of course, to
the longest, most popular river in the southeastern United
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
Among the alligator's closest extant
cousins, even closer than the crocodile, are the other
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
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
There is one species, however that is the only
other known member of the Alligator genus --
the Chinese Alligator. Research has revealed that the alligator
relative 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, among other factors.
(You may read a summary of this animal,
above is a specimen of the rare and endangered
Alligator sinensis from China, the only other known extant (living) alligator species. (Image: Greg Hume.