Alligator Education

The following article is not comment from an expert on alligators, but from a BPS member who believes that more alligator handbags and matching shoes might not be so bad, and its posting also stems from a bit of healthy paranoia.  Those of us who are outside often become familiar with lurking dangers, but visitors to our outings and perhaps newer members need some education.  This article could, but for added length, include comments on snakes, wild pigs, coyotees (rabid or not), bees, black widow other words, outdoor critters of all kinds. Each field trip will have different cautions. 

BPS member Leisa

Comment on media reports

Alligators used to be a common sight along the gulf coast but by the time the 1950’s came along they were a rare sight.  That is no longer the case.  Newspaper and television reports featuring alligators are no longer uncommon.  Alligators were placed in the Decatur Joe Wheeler State Park in the 1940’s and 1950’s to control the beaver population.  It was believed that the cold winters would kill them, however they just buried themselves in the mud.  Churches near Decatur Alabama no longer baptize in the creek behind the churches due to alligator sightings.  The reptiles have been spotted crossing the road near Oak Mountain State Park , in the Cahaba River near Hwy 280, they are sunning on roads in Clanton and golf courses at Phenix City and visiting back yards near rivers near Birmingham.  A River Pilot that I happened to sit next to on an airplane told me that they see alligators all along the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.  So, basically alligators are moving north from the coast and south from Decatur using waterways as the mode of transportation.

Blood line

The reptile has been living successfully for 200 million years, since the Mesozoic era.    Kingdom: animalia; Phylum: chordata; Class: reptilia; Order: crocodilia; Family: crocodylidae; Genus: alligator; Species: mississippiensis   An alligator can live up to 45 years, reach 13-15 feet in length and weigh 800 - 1000 lbs.  Its saltwater cousin, the crocodile, can exceed 20 feet.  For those of us who are near and in the creeks and rivers of Alabama it is time to educate ourselves about the presence of alligators - they are here to stay.       

Hunting & Legal issues

Alligator skin is more expensive than crocodile and is legally a commercial source only in the southeastern United States.  It is illegal to kill an alligator without a permit.  Capture and relocation are the practiced method of removing the reptiles.  In Alabama, hunting permits are issued and the range of inclusion is broadening with time.  Alabama state law is quoted at the end of the article.

Mental capacity

An alligator is a reptile, a hunter.  The full grown male of 13-15 feet has a brain weight of about 8 ounces and it is basically the size of its eyeball.  This brain has no room for logic or affection, it simply reacts.


At a glance from a distance a sunning alligator can easily be mistaken for a gray or black log.  On field trips BPS members who first approach a waterway should scan the trail and then stop and scan banks to make sure that observed logs are indeed logs.  Alligators lounge in the water as well as on land, therefore the surface of the water should also be scanned for a head or protruding eyes.  It is possible that a submerged reptile could become curious when the first person heads up or down stream, and then slowly move closer to the point of entry from the bank.  In theory, if it is hungry it could attempt to take one of the next few people who enter from the bank.  As a word of caution, any collecting in or along a waterway should also include being on the lookout for snakes, wasp nests, the sound of wild pigs as well as alligators.  Further more, the scent of a carcass in the air could also alert one of the need for caution or a change of plans.


The tracks of an alligator will of course vary in size due to its age, but the thing to note when differentiating them from river otter or beaver is that the alligator has 5 toes on the front feet and 4 toes on the back feet and each foot will have only 3 claws.  A tail drag generally is present.

Eating habits

A number of establishments sell alligator meat for you to eat, but what do alligators eat?  Alligator teeth are conical, rather blunt, and unlike a crocodile, do not extend outside the top jaw.   While an adult alligator can live for a year without eating, the usual menu is small animals living in the water and frequenting the waters edge.  (It is accepted that feeding will not occur if the water temperature is below 68 degrees F.)  The alligator will eat carrion and the adult male is known to be cannibalistic.  If a prey is too large to swallow, it is killed by thrashing and rolling until vital bones are broken.   It is believed to be placed in a holding spot until rotten enough for pieces to be pulled apart.   Wild alligators have been known to attack larger prey such as cows, horses and humans.  Alligators that live near populated areas have been known to attack lawn mowers (one article presumed that the noise of the mower replicated the sounding of territorial males).  Attacks on humans generally are reported to occur early in the morning or late afternoon.  A Texas website reports that alligators have pursued top-water fishing lures, probably because they mimic natural prey.  Their website contends that alligators that “cannot be easily scared away from a boat are considered to be nuisance alligators”.

Reproduction and vocalization

The reproductive years begin at 10 to 12 years of age.  A pair will breed in April and the female will build a nest in June or July and ~70 days later the eggs will hatch.  (Reminder: it is illegal to possess alligator eggs.)  The nest will be 2-3 feet high and composed of dirt and plant debris and may easily resemble a hay stack.  The female will hollow out a cavity to deposit 30-50 eggs and she will generally stay with the nest, even resting her head on it, until hatching occurs.  The temperature of the mound during days 7-21 determines the sex of the eggs.  Some females are more aggressive about protecting the nest than others.  Close to the end of incubation the babies start emitting a barking sound from within the egg and the mom will then start to uncover the nest.  For those that are slower to hatch mom will assist them by rolling the egg in her mouth.  When all of the eggs are hatched she calls to her young, with a pig-like grunt, and she will lead them to the water.  An alligator mom will also carry young in her mouth.  Once in the water the young will swim as a pod for about one year and mom will be close by for about 2 years.  A male alligator has a throaty bellowing roar and it can be heard from a good distance, usually during the breeding season.  (The female can also roar.)


Alligators do not need to use their arms to swim and their quickness is due to the strength in their tail.  An alligator can propel itself vertically out of the water by use of its tail to a height almost matching its length.  According to a Florida website, if you hear a hissing, consider it a warning from an alligator that you are too close - back away whether you see it or not.  The same site also says that it is rare for a wild alligator to chase people, but as a warning it states that they can run at 35 mph on land for a short distance.            

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Alabama State Law

No person shall take or possess the eggs of alligators, alligators, or their parts or skins in any county of this state except as provided for in this article, and the provisions of this section shall not apply to legal finished products, alligators or parts thereof legally acquired prior to May 17, 1989, or alligators harvested or collected under a permit from the Commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Violation of this section is a Class C felony. 

State of Alabama 2011 permits:  The following information is dated 06/01/2011:
Central Alabama Counties Included in 2011 Alligator Hunts Registration for Alabama’s sixth regulated alligator hunting season  is now open.  Prospective hunters can register for one of the 295 tags. The hunts will be held on August 12-15 and August 19-22 in the Mobile Tensaw Delta and west central Alabama, and on August 12-28, for the southeast Alabama area. This year, 50 tags will be issued for the new hunt area in west central Alabama, which includes Monroe County (north of US Hwy. 84), Wilcox County and Dallas County. Online registration for the random tag drawing will end at 8 a.m. on July 11. 

Texas law - The current legal definition of a nuisance gator is "an alligator that is depredating [killing livestock or pets] or a threat to human health or safety" under definitions laid out in the Texas Administrative Code (Title 31, Part 2, Chapter 65, Section 65.352). 
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Other reading:


The State Library and Archives of Florida has a website discussing "Alligators in the Backyard",  with numerous photos.