The end of alligator mating season is near but that doesn’t mean that you can let down your guard when it comes to being aware that you may be sharing your water space with these reptiles who have been around for 35 million years. Alligators are ectothermic, which means they rely on external sources of heat to regulate their body temperature. This means they become more active in warmer temperatures and move from one water source to another. They are most active when temperatures are between 82 to 92 degrees Fahrenheit.
Alligators may occur anywhere there is water—lakes, ponds, rivers, marshes, swamps, and even man-made canals. Their courtship rituals begin in early April and mating season occurs in May and June. To attract females, males display by head-slapping the water and producing a deep rumbling bellow. Once a male-female pair is formed, they will swim together, touch each other’s snouts, and blow bubbles. Mating takes place in the water and when completed, the male swims away and the female is left to search for a place to build her nest. Female alligators construct nests by mounding up vegetation, sticks, leaves, and mud in a sheltered spot in or near water. The average clutch is 32 to 46 eggs laid in late June or early July. Incubation requires approximately 63-68 days, and hatching occurs from mid-August through early September. Alligator eggs are threatened by predators (mainly raccoons) and drowning due to floods. An estimated 24 live hatchlings will emerge and only ten hatchlings will live to one year and approximately five will reach maturity, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC.)
Alligators are very protective of their nests and young, so it is wise to remain vigilant and take precautions. Females stay near the nest during incubation and actively defend it from predators like raccoons. Females may also be aggressive toward humans, often hissing and charging at intruders, so alligator nests should never be approached
Alligators are opportunistic feeders. Adult alligators seek out rough fish, snakes, turtles, small mammals and birds. Juvenile gators eat primarily insects, amphibians, small fish and other invertebrates. It is not wise to allow your dogs or children to swim in water inhabited by alligators, or to drink or play at the water’s edge. To an alligator, a splash potentially means a food source is in the water. Avoid swimming in areas that are known habitats for large alligators. If you are kayaking, it is recommended to stay at least 30 feet away from a gator. If you come upon one, paddle away calmly or back away slowly. Do not allow dogs to swim or explore waters that are known to have alligators because dogs look like prey to alligators. There are far more alligator attacks on dogs than on humans.
Alligators and Floridians usually have a peaceful coexistence, but there are recorded attacks and occasional fatalities. The key to staying safe is being alert to the possibility of alligators being present. Never feed gators or swim or wade in waters where large alligators are known or likely to occur, especially at dusk or night (when they naturally feed). It is illegal to feed alligators. When humans feed alligators, it causes the alligators to lose their natural fear of humans and to associate humans with food. It doesn’t matter if people feed them human food like marshmallows or throw them fish guts when cleaning fish, it’s all bad. It changes the alligator’s behavior. Normally, alligators avoid humans, but alligators that have been fed by humans will move toward humans and can become aggressive. If you are aware of a nuisance alligator, the best thing you can do is to contact your local or regional FWC office or call 866-FWC-GATOR. If the alligator is deemed to be a threat to the public, a licensed trapper will be sent to remove it.
Because of Florida’s booming population growth, people and alligators are constantly forced to cross paths, increasing the chances of conflict. Knowing where alligators live, how they behave and what you can do to avoid conflict with alligators is key to sharing space safely.
This article is an edited version of “Living with Alligators: A Florida Reality” written by Elizabeth Swiman, Mark Hostetler, Sarah Webb Miller and Martin Main that may be found on the University of Florida IFAS Extension website: