Alligators play a key role in the lowcountry ecosystem.
By Anneliza Itkor, Outside Hilton Head
With the arrival of May, Hilton Head Island’s high season officially kicks into full gear. The island is abuzz with visitors eager to explore all that is wild and beautiful.
With one exception.
The American alligator that graces the shores of our many freshwater lagoons seems to be almost universally terrifying to those who aren’t familiar with this unique species. Perhaps if we take a closer look at the gator and reveal some of its weird and wonderful characteristics, fear might be replaced by fascination.
Alligators are part of the crocodilian order, a class of animals that evolved about 80 million years ago. Often referred to as “living fossils,” no one can deny how strongly the current-day alligator resembles its Cretaceous Period ancestors. Gators are cold-blooded, meaning they are ectothermic animals that cannot regulate their own body temperature. Instead, they assume the temperature of their surrounding environment. This is why you will often see them basking in the sun in an effort to warm themselves.
Oddly, alligators are believed to continue growing throughout the entirety of their lives. Both the male and female reach maturity at about six feet. At this time, their growth begins to slow, ultimately becoming so slow that it is hardly detectable. Adult females average just over eight feet, while males average an impressive 11 feet. In the wild, alligators typically live for 35-50 years of age.
Once mating is complete, the female will construct a nest of sticks and mud. She can then lay as many as 60 eggs in this nest in a single season. Interestingly, the temperature of the nest determines the sex of the hatchlings. Cooler temperatures will produce only females, while warmer temperatures produce only males. The female gator will fiercely protect her eggs and her young up to the age of three years, a trait that is unique to this particular cold-blooded critter. Juvenile gators have a series of sounds that will let mama know if they are hungry or if trouble is brewing. Alligators have even been observed bringing food to their young, a trait that, among reptiles, is unique to crocodilians. In essence, gators are great parents.
While those teeth may be intimidating (and a gator grows new teeth to replace worn ones, going through as many as 3,000 teeth in a lifetime), alligator attacks on humans are rare and almost never fatal. Alligators generally target prey much smaller than humans, such as birds, snakes, turtles, water birds and small mammals. Unfortunately, increased human encroachment into gator habitats has raised the risk of conflict.
Nevertheless, an unpleasant encounter with an alligator can easily be avoided. Never attempt to feed them, always observe alligators from a distance, keep pets and small children away from freshwater lagoons and don’t swim at night or in waters that might be inhabited by large alligators.
To book an outing with Outside Hilton Head, call (843) 686-6996 or visit www.outsidehiltonhead.com.