Coexisting with Alligators
Lakes Park is one of the best places in Lee County to observe a variety of animals in their natural habitats. One of the more conspicuous animals found at the park is the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). Alligators are an awe-inspiring animals, and most people have very strong feelings about them, either good or bad. Whether you’ve grown up in Florida or are visiting from someplace where there aren’t any alligators, many people have some common misconceptions of alligators. This article will hopefully provide you with some interesting facts about alligators, as well as some tips for coexisting with alligators.
Like all reptiles, alligators are ectothermic, or what is commonly referred to as “cold-blooded”. This means that they cannot regulate their own body temperature, and instead rely on external regulators like air and water temperatures. During the cooler times of year, alligators can be seen on the banks of waterbodies basking in the sun. They may be trying to increase their body temperature to help digestion, or they may be warming up for the day. During warmer times of the year, alligators don’t even need to leave the water to thermoregulate. The water is warm enough that they don’t need to use the sun to warm up. Alligators don’t like to be out in the sun when it’s 95 degrees outside any more than humans do!
While you may see an alligator out of the water basking, alligators are almost always in the water when people see them. Typically when they’re in the water, all you’ll see of an alligator is its head, or maybe just eyes and a snout. Alligators are well adapted for a life in water. They have webbed feet and a large, powerful tail to help them swim. Large adult alligators have also been known to hold their breath for up to an hour at a time! Alligators have their eyes and nostrils are on the top of their head so that most of their body can remain submerged, hidden from potential predators or prey animals.
Alligators are ambush predators, meaning they like to catch their food by surprise. And alligators are very important predators in their ecosystem. Alligators are apex predators, meaning they are at the top of the food chain. Throughout their range, they are one of the only animals that preys on large vertebrates such as deer, raccoons, and opossums. And this is important because those animal species are known as subsidized animals, meaning that they increase in density around human populations. Alligators are often the only predator that keeps these prey populations from becoming overpopulated. And here at Lakes Park, alligators have a very special role in the ecosystem. During bird nesting season, you’ll often find alligators hanging out around bird rookeries. Birds build nests in trees where alligators are, because the alligators often eat animals like raccoons and opossums that would otherwise steal the eggs out of the birds’ nests. And the alligators don’t mind acting as security guards, because every once in a while a young bird will fall out of the nest and provide the alligator with a snack.
Tips for Coexisting with Alligators
Even though alligators can grow up to 15 feet long, most alligators are scarred of humans. Typically, alligators will go underwater or swim away when approached by humans. However, these are large, powerful predators that have survived for millions of years, so here are a few tips for coexisting with these beneficial animals.
- The first is to always keep your distance. Alligators are very fast, explosive animals, but they lack endurance and tire out quickly. As long as you maintain a healthy distance of about 50 feet, you should be perfectly safe.
- Another tip is to always keep pets on a leash near alligator habitat. To us, a dog running along the shoreline looks like a dog. But to an alligator, that dog may look more like a raccoon or fox and it may want to try and make a meal out of it. As long as you have your pets on a leash, your presence should be enough to deter the alligator and you can safely control your pet.
- Female alligators are also very protective of their young. Female alligators will watch over and protect their young for up to three years. During that time, they will defend their offspring against threats, aggressively if needed. That’s why alligators less than a foot long are often the most dangerous alligators.
- And the last tip is to never, ever feed an alligator. Fed alligators are dead alligators. And that is because alligators learn a lot the same way dogs do. Anyone who has ever slipped a dog something under the dinner table knows that dog is going to come right back and beg for more. And even though a dog begging may be cute, alligator begging is not nearly as cute. They will open their mouth, hiss, and may even come out of the water to approach people. This isn’t a big deal when it’s a three foot gator, but it can be a much bigger deal if the gator is larger. And the only way to deal with a gator that has associated people with food is to kill it. So help protect the alligators at Lakes Park by keeping your food to yourself!
- If you do see an alligator that may be a nuisance gator that has come to associate people with food, the best thing to do is call the FWC Nuisance Alligator Hotline at 866-3924286.
Any questions regarding coexisting with alligators or any of the other animals and plants at Lakes Park can be directed to Rick Bauer, Land Stewardship Coordinator, Lee County Parks and Recreation. RBauer@leegov.com or 239-218-1032.