Wild South Florida — Naturally Wild
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The Ultimate Guide to the Outdoors and Environment in Broward, Collier, Martin, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties.
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American Alligator
American alligator, photographed at Green Cay Nature Center, Boynton Beach, Palm Beach County, in summer 2014.
alligator face close  

Nothing says Florida more than the alligator, Alligator mississipiensis. It is, after all, the official reptile of the Sunshine State.

And for good reason. It is the top of the food chain in its part of the world. An adult gator fears no other animal except one of its kind, and of course, us. We’ve seen them eat raccoons. We’ve seen them eat bobcats. We’ve seen them eat turtles. Lots of turtles. Birds are on their menu and so is just about anything else they can get their jaws on.

An adult male can approach 12 feet in length or more and weigh as much as a half-ton. Females max out around six or seven feet.  An easy rule for estimating a gator's size: look at the distance between the eyes and the nostriis. Each inch equates to about a foot in body length.

Mid-spring is mating season; females build a mounded nest near the water in which she lays between 20 and 50 eggs. She will aggressively guard the nest from anything she deems a threat, including humans if they approach. Two months later, August or September, the eggs hatch, the young gators being less than a foot long and pretty much defenseless. The mother will watch over her brood for about a year, warding off marauding birds, raccoon and other gators (Even dad is a threat to his offspring).


But even with mom's protection, the odds are long against a hatchling reaching maturity. Out of a brood of eight to 12, perhaps one or two might make it to adulthood. They will grow about a foot a year; It can take a decade or more for a gator to reach sexual maturity. 

Now and then, you’ll hear someone mistake gators for crocodiles. There are crocodiles in Florida, but they’re rare and usually don’t share the same habitat, gators preferring fresh water, crocs salt or brackish water. Crocodiles also are pretty much restricted to south Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Both gators and crocs are part of the same family, Crocodilidae.

You'll also hear stories about how fast alligators can can move, how high they can jump. Most aren't true. They can move quickly over short distances on land as well as in the water, but they are cold-blooded animals and they aren't going to work any harder than they have to in order to get their next meal. They're more likely to ambush their prey rather than run it down.

Photographs by David Sedore
yearling gator

Gators will dig holes that will hold water during Florida’s dry season. These “gator holes” become important not only for the alligators but as critical habitat for fish and other animals. Gators also will burrow into mud banks, giving them shelter during cold winter nights.

Gators can be found throughout Florida, including the Keys, and throughout the Southeast U.S. from North Carolina to Texas and Oklahoma.

Anywhere there’s fresh water is a potential gator hole — always look carefully, very carefully before approaching a bank — but wetlands like Green Cay and Wakodahatchee are among the best places to view these creatures. If you have the time, drive to Shark Valley and walk along the canal. The number of gators you'll see is staggering. Loxahatchee NWR rates high on the list as well.

alligator in shalow water
alligator alligator young alligator
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without their express permission.