Crocodilians, now represented by crocodiles, alligators and caimans, split from other reptiles and early dinosaurs back in the Triassic Period, some 200 million years ago. Modern alligators are limited to two species: the American alligator and its smaller cousin in southern China; our gator, the largest reptile in North America, inhabits the Southeast Coastal Plain, from North Carolina to Texas.
Up to 15 feet long and weighing as much as 800 pounds, adult males bellow in mid spring to attract a mate. Once impregnated, the female builds a nest mound of rotting vegetation and deposits 20-50 eggs before covering them with more vegetation. Staying close by until they hatch (usually in August), the mother protects her young, digging them out and carrying them to open water in her mouth; she will continue to watch over her offspring for their first year of life. Those eggs that incubate at temperatures above 90 degrees F produce males while those below 86 degrees produce females; nest temperatures in between these parameters yield a mix of genders.
Young alligators may fall victim to a variety of predators, including snakes, large fish, snapping turtles, raccoons, bobcats, bald eagles and other alligators; once fully grown, however, American gators are threatened only by human hunters and habitat loss and may live 50 years or more in the wild. Nearly driven to extinction by overhunting and swamp drainage during the first half of the 20th Century, these large reptiles are now common in freshwater marshlands (and some brackish areas) of the Coastal Plain; they are especially numerous in Florida and Louisiana. Adults feed on a wide variety of fish, reptiles, birds and mammals and can pose a threat to humans if harassed or startled; they have been known to grab pets or even young children on rare occasions. American gators are also raised in captivity for their meat and leathery hide and, unfortunately, are victims of the tourist carnival industry across the Deep South.