Alligator, American

Alligator mississippiensis  

Alligators reach an average length of between 6 and 10 feet, with males rarely reaching 12 to 14 feet. The tail length is roughly half of their overall length. Their general coloration is uniformly dark, but the light markings of youth may persist into early adulthood. Young alligators have bold yellowish crossbands on a black ground color and are about 9 inches at hatching. Alligators have blunt, rounded snouts.








Southeastern United States, from North Carolina south to Florida and west to Texas.


Freshwater lakes, ponds, rivers, bayous, marshes, roadside ditches and other bodies of freshwater around Florida, the Gulf and the Lower Atlantic Coastal Plains.

Life Expectancy

Approximately 40 years in the wild and 50 years in captivity; estimated ages of up to 103 years recorded on captive individuals.

Sexual Maturity

Approximately 6 to 10 years


n the wild, young alligators eat a variety of small aquatic vertebrates and invertebrates. Adults eat primarily fish, snails, turtles, snakes, and waterfowl. Larger mammals are occasionally taken as well. In the Zoo, they are fed whole and quartered raw chickens and skinned nutria when available. Young alligators are fed pinky mice.


CITES II, Species of Special Concern (FL), Threatened Due to Similar Appearance (AR, GA, LA, NC, SC).


Adult alligators are usually solitary, but can become quite social during certain periods. At dusk, they become more active, but activity can be seen during all periods of the day. Peak levels of courtship, for instance, occur in the early morning. An alligator will eat any animal it can overcome. Hunting strategies include waiting unseen for prey to stray too close or moving slowly toward prey without being detected. Large animals are usually taken while drinking at the water’s edge. Alligators swim with their legs tucked against their body, moving forward quietly by sweeping their powerful tail from side to side. While swimming on the surface of the water, an alligator can often approach its prey without being noticed because it so closely resembles a floating log. While an alligator is swimming on the surface, only its head and part of its back are visible. Important senses are still at work – it can breathe, see, hear, and smell. When an alligator cruises around slowly and submer


Sharp teeth, claws, and tough, scaly skin add both protection and efficiency as predators. Alligators are often seen dragging themselves forward on their bellies as they slide off a bank into the water. For this reason, many people do not know that alligators usually get around on land by raising their bellies off the ground and walking on all four legs. They can also run, and some crocodilians have even been known to gallop for short distances. They are not adapted for running long distances, but are capable of sudden bursts of speed, either to retreat into the water or to charge out of the water and onto shore to grab a morsel such as a discarded fish. A nesting female usually charges anyone who walks too close to her nest. Alligator jaws are designed for catching, killing, and hanging on to prey and not for chewing food. Alligators swallow small morsels whole and will dismember larger prey. Like a bird, the alligator ingests stones and pebbles to aid in breaking down food particles

Special Interests

There are twenty-three species in eight genera of crocodilians. Twenty species are listed as Endangered with the USFWS. Crocodiles and alligators are descended from socket-toothed reptiles called Thecodonts that lived more than 200 million years ago. Some extinct crocodilians were true giants measuring close to 50 feet long. Alligators lack sex chromosomes. The sex is actually determined by the temperature at which their eggs incubate. This phenomenon is called TDSD, temperature-dependent sex determination. In an alligator nest, the eggs that incubate between 90 and 93 degrees become males, while those incubating between 82 and 86 degrees become females. Since the eggs at the top of the alligator’s nest are likely to be heated more by the sun than those below, males usually come from the top part of the nest while females come from the bottom. A baby’s sex is determined during the first three weeks of incubation. Alligators belong to a family closely related to the crocodiles and loo


In the past, baby alligators could be bought as pets. Eventually tiring of their new pets, as the story goes, owners would flush the little animals down the toilet, supposedly creating huge populations of alligators in the sewers of New York and other cities. Don’t believe it! The name “alligator” comes from the Spanish “el largato”, “the lizard.” In Louisiana, a bagful of alligator teeth was thought to prevent warts. Rubbing oil from an alligator on a person’s skin was thought to ease the pain of rheumatism, and ashes from a burned alligator skin were thought to produce a narcotic effect. The use of “alligator” as a reference to a “friend” or “acquaintance” became famous in the expression, “See ya later, alligator!” The correct response is, “After while, crocodile!” The Choctaw Indians tell this tale of how the alligator taught their people to hunt: A Choctaw hunter always had very bad luck while hunting in spite of the fact that he was skilled and had strong, straight arrows. He


Many of the early settlers of the SE United States considered alligators to be a nuisance and killed them to protect livestock and for sport. In 1855, France discovered that alligator hides could be fashioned to make durable and fashionable shoes and saddlebags. With the outbreak of war in France in 1861, the overseas trade in alligators ceased. In 1870 after the war, several U.S. tanneries began processing alligators. Between 1870 and 1965, tannery records indicated that some 10 million alligators had been processed. This number is suspected to be higher. Nearly 2.5 million skins passed through tanneries from 1881 to 1891. With the dwindling populations of alligators, the price for their hides skyrocketed from 13¢ per foot in 1916 to $23 per foot in 1986. By 1960 it was evident that overhunting and habitat loss were taking their tolls on the alligator population. Babies were being sold to tourists or shipped to pet stores in the North. Many died from pneumonia or calcium deficiencies.

Jacksonville Zoo History

There were probably alligators at the Zoo when it opened on May 12, 1914. We know for sure that there were two alligators in the animal collection on December 31, 1914. There have probably always been American alligators in the Jacksonville Zoo’s collection. It is unclear whether this species has ever bred here.


Wild Florida