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Coastal Carolina’s Got Gators

June 12, 2014

by Julia Jacobs

If the American alligator could speak, it would tell quite the story. A story of being on the brink of extinction due to hunting and trade, as well as habitat loss, and then of their amazing success story and where they are now. Many people are unsure of where these animals are, both in terms of their recovery story and their physical location.

American alligator. Photo taken in Florida near Boca Raton.  Photo by Julia Jacobs.

American alligator. Photo taken in Florida near Boca Raton. Photo by Julia Jacobs.

As far as their success story goes, populations of American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) have recovered significantly but the species is still listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  It is illegal to hunt and kill alligators in North Carolina.  Commercial collecting was the major threat but now habitat destruction poses the biggest problem to both alligators and crocodiles.  The American alligator is very similar in appearance to the endangered American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), but there are some differences in appearance that help distinguish between the two species. The American alligator has a more broad and round snout than the American crocodile. The fourth tooth protruding from the bottom jaw is a trait unique to the American crocodile—unless there is an alligator in dire need of braces. The American crocodile also has a more restricted range in the United States than the American alligator does.

American crocodile.  Photo taken in Costa Rica by Julia Jacobs.

American crocodile. Photo taken in Costa Rica by Julia Jacobs.

The American alligator ranges from North Carolina to Florida and over to parts of Texas, while the American crocodile is only found in southern Florida.  Alligators live in fresh or brackish water and can tolerate salt water for only short amounts of time due to a lack of salt glands.  Tidal estuaries, swamps, marshes, ponds, lakes, large streams and rivers all provide good homes for gators.  While they are not as common, or often as large as they are in the more southern states, alligators are found in the coastal region of North Carolina. From Gates County close to the Virginia border down the coast to Brunswick, Columbus and Bladen Counties further south, you can definitely see gators in North Carolina.

Alligators can live to be between 30 and 50 years old and can grow to reach 10 to 15 feet in length, and weigh around 1000 pounds. They have nostrils that point upward on the top of their snout to allow them to breathe when the rest of their body is completely submerged underwater. Their diet mainly consists of fish, turtles, snakes, and small mammals, but they are opportunistic animals and should not be approached or fed because they can be aggressive and will feed on larger animals including pets.

American alligator skull.  Specimen on display in the Naturalist Center.  Photo taken by Julia Jacobs.

American alligator skull. Specimen on display in the Naturalist Center. Photo taken by Julia Jacobs.

The American alligator’s success story is well on its way to being amazing, and can only be furthered by the continuing interest of people in understanding it, in protecting alligators from hunting, and protecting their habitat from destruction.  The Naturalist Center has two American alligator skulls for the public to see and learn from, so stop by sometime and take a look around.

Julia Jacobs is a summer intern in The Naturalist Center.  She is an undergraduate at North Carolina State University in the Natural Resources program.  Julia  has a passion for photography and her photos can be viewed at www.juliajacobsphotography.weebly.com

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