The ancestors of alligators and crocodiles walked and swam the
earth 200 million years ago along with their cousins, the dinosaurs
and flying reptiles. Throughout their ancient history, many crocodilians
have lived diverse lifestyles as terrestrial, marine,
and amphibious predators. Members of the crocodilian family
tree were successful predators long before early mammals
began their rule.
alligators have acquired many special traits that make them masters
in their wetland homes. A gator's eyes, ears, and nose can peek
just above the water's surface in search of prey while its body
remains submerged and out-of-sight. The ears and nostrils automatically
close as the gator slides underwater. A transparent third eyelid,
or nictitating membrane, covers the eyes as the reptile's powerful
tail propels its streamlined body easily through the water.
Sounds Of The Future
During the morning hours of April and May breeding season begins
with roaring bellows and splashing head slaps. A bull gator courts
the females that visit him with nose-taps, nudges, and shoves.
After mating with her favorite fellow, the female swims off to find
a suitable nest site where the water level will not rise enough
to drown her eggs. In the early summer she builds a three-foot-high,
six-foot-wide mound from nearby plants and mud. The temperature
within the nest determines the sex of the hatchlings. The heat of
decaying vegetation and a sunny location provide a steady temperature.
Cooler nests (82-86 degrees F) produce females, warmer ones (90-93
degrees F) produce males, and those with in-between temperatures
produce both sexes. Female gators defend the nests from hungry egg
thieves such as raccoons. And even though red-bellied turtles are
frequently gator snacks, they sneak by gator guardians to lay their
eggs in the protected mound. At the end of two months, mom gator
anxiously listens for a tell-tale "barking" that signals
it is time to scratch open an exit for the hatchlings.
mothers provide the most parental care compared to any other reptiles.
A mother will allow babies (a group of baby alligators is called
a pod) to rest on her back and in her mouth. Frightened hatchlings
and youngsters use a distress call to alert the parent. Other adults
in the neighborhood often respond to this vocalization as
well. Raccoons, skunks, otters, turtles, fish, wading birds, and
even large alligators eat hatchlings and small juveniles.
Like other reptiles, crocodilians gather body heat from the
environment by basking in the sun and lying on warm surfaces. Throughout
the Everglades of South Florida gators muck out the grasses and
mud to create pools for gator holes where water collects. When the
flow of water across the sawgrass prairie dries up in winter, these
holes become oases in a land of cracked mud and brown leaves.
But all around the water hole, life goes on as usual. Catfish and
garfish crowd the pond as fish-eating birds like anhingas and herons
perch in the willows to preen and digest a meal. Hungry deer
cross the open grasses to feed on the healthy greenery surrounding
the pond. The alligator shapes the landscape for itself and in the
process becomes a wildlife manager that provides favorable conditions
for the other inhabitants until the rains come.