Two Hundred Million Years
The first crocodilian was kind of lame. Spending lots of time on land, eating insects and hiding from larger predators. It wasn’t until about 144 million years ago that the alligator decided to stick to the water and become the armored death muscle you see today. Now there are 23 species of crocodilians which make up three major families: Crocodylidae, Gavialida, and Alligatoridae. While many species are threatened or endangered some are now protected due to wildlife conservation efforts.
Unsurprisingly, the alligator has remained an ambush predator throughout its evolution but for some reason it has manged to be come less aggressive than its closest living relative, the crocodile. As of 2005, there have only been 11 human fatalities caused by the American Alligator. The folks at CrocBITE have provided a database for your nerding pleasure (if you want more statistics).
“Maybe I’m afraid of any apex predator that lived through the K-T extinction physically unchanged for 100 million years because it is the perfect killing machine. A half ton of cold blooded fury with a bite force of 200,000 Newtons and, stomach acid so strong it can dissolve bones and hooves.” – Sterling Archer
Alligators in the Age of Man
With a little imagination, it is understandable that a predator which survived the K-T extinction has had some trouble during the Anthropocene. Alligators are downright terrifying and, as my mother has always said, “They are only good for one thing: a nice purse.” And boy was she right. They really do make nice purses, shoes, wallets, belts, pants, hats and jackets… even if they are insanely expensive.
However, the alligator’s ability to be used for such fashionable accessories is not all that important in light of habitat loss. Or their inability to adapt to endocrine disruptors which have managed to infiltrate water supplies around the globe. This fact is not lost on researchers though, like Dr. Louis J. Guillette, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Zoology at the University of Florida and Professor of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute or Walt Rhodes, alligator project supervisor for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
They have made the product of alligator sex, little baby alligators, their bread and butter.
Some Like it Hot
One the fascinating aspects of alligator sex is that alligators (crocodilians) do not have sex chromosomes! They rely solely on the whims of nest temperature to dictate the sex of alligator hatchlings. Typically, cold or extremely hot nest temperatures will produce females, while intermediate temperatures produce males. This is where Guillette and Rhodes come into the picture and what gives their research validation.
Their research has actually shown that pharmacological pollutants and endocrine disruptors will cause the balance shift away from the predictive sex designation- dictated by nest temperature- to that of whatever chemical or hormone the laying female has concentrated in her blood. Which is a little scary considering that we are all sharing the same water, at some point.
Enough about how Humans have had some unexpected impacts on the alligator’s quality of life. Let’s move on to how alligators do the dirty.
Large alligators are extremely territorial so before they can get down, they need to signal their potential mates that they won’t eat them. The acts of courtship are undertaken by the male and begin with the male making a ‘loud’ low frequency bellow. This bellow, performed at the top of the water, causes the water to dance.
Then the male snaps his jaws on the water’s surface and excretes an oily musk from his cloaca and around his jaw.
Meanwhile, the female shows her interest by slowly encroaching on the male’s territory, and presenting her best low growl and reciprocal pheromone marker. Finally, the male and female ever so gently rub snouts, blow bubbles, and may even play piggy back around the pond. This final act of heavy petting can continue for hours until the male and female rub cloacas and the male inserts his always erect penis into the female. The male and female will mate over a few days, however, they are not exclusive.
If you want to catch this melding of the cloacas, most alligator states offer air boat rides and mating season lasts from mid-April to May – so book your flights now!