Scientific Name: Alligator mississippiensis

Range: Southeastern U.S.

Habitat: Freshwater swamps and marshes; lakes, rivers

Diet: Small and large mammals; turtles; birds; carrion

Life Span: 30-50 years in the wild; up to 80 years in captivity

Description: Alligators can grow up to 14 ft in length & weigh 400-1000 lbs. Females are smaller in size than males. Once an alligator exceeds four feet, it is relatively safe from predators. Their coloring varies from olive, to black in adults. Juveniles have yellow stripes on their backs. Alligators have between 74 and 80 teeth in their mouth at a time. As teeth wear down they are replaced. An alligator can go through 2,000 to 3,000 teeth in a lifetime!

Family Life: Mating takes place in the spring, when many visual and olfactory displays are used, including the low frequency bellowing of the males underwater. The females construct nests of mud and vegetation in the early summer, where 20-50 eggs are laid. Unlike all other reptiles, alligators exhibit parental care. The female will guard the nest until the eggs hatch, and then provide some parental care for up to 2 years. She will carry her babies in her mouth to protect them! The first two years are the most critical in the life of an alligator. Eighty percent or more may fall victim to wading birds, raccoons, bobcats, otters, snakes, large bass, and even larger alligators.

Alligator or Crocodile: The easiest way to distinguish an alligator from a crocodile is by looking at their teeth. The large fourth tooth in the lower jaw of an alligator fits into a socket in the upper jaw and is not visible when the mouth is closed. In a crocodile, the fourth tooth is always exposed. Alligators are also more darkly colored with a broad, rounded snout and are usually found in fresh water. Crocodiles are usually grayish-green and prefer coastal, brackish, and salt-water habitats. They have a narrow, tapered, triangular snout.

Status in the Wild: Low Risk

Nature Notes: Alligators are one animal that has changed very little since the prehistoric days. When dinosaurs became extinct, these modern day contemporaries continued to prosper. The name alligator was derived from the Spanish words el lagarto, meaning "the lizard," which is what Spanish explorers called them. Alligators undergo periods of dormancy when the weather is cold. They dig a "gator hole" along a waterway and use it until the weather gets warmer again. They became the official state reptile ofFlorida in 1987.