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The Alligator: Awe-Inspiring and Dangerous

The American alligator is the largest freshwater reptile on Hilton Head Island. The turtle is a close second. Okay, maybe not a close second! Alligator’s sizable armored bodies, covered in horny scales, with yellow eyes atop their heads make for a formidable figure.

While glad that they are an awe-inspiring attraction to tourists and locals alike, it is wiser still to possess a healthy fear of them. Or, let’s call it respect.

Obviously, respect ties into the size and power of the creature. A broader knowledge of the American Alligator has helped deepen my appreciation for this local inhabitant.

The name alligator comes from the Spanish word “el lagarto”, which means lizard. The alligator belongs to the order Crocodilia and is in the family Alligatoridae, making up the genus Alligator. The American Alligator (Alligator mississippienis) inhabits freshwater wetlands such as marshes and cypress swamps from Texas to North Carolina. It is the official state reptile of three states: Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Did you know that alligators are considered a “keystone species”? A keystone species helps to mold its environment, having significant influence on the types of species that live in its habitat. This is two-fold: adult alligators are apex predators critical to the biodiversity of their habitat. They lunch on fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Due to their dominating size, they control the number of species, helping keep the ecosystem balanced.

I didn’t know what an important role they play to their surroundings. Quite fascinating! Alligators provide fresh water for other wildlife species to drink during droughts by digging “gator holes” that bring groundwater to the surface. This provides alligators with a cool, wet place to rest. How cool is that! Pun intended.

Since alligators are cold-blooded, they don’t have an inner mechanism that regulates their body temperature like we do. They rely on their environment to survive – this is called ectothermic if we want to be accurate and scientific! During warm months, alligators alternate between sunning out of the water and returning to the water to cool down. This helps to regulate their body temperature.

American alligators have nostrils that face upward, which allows them to breathe when the rest of them is submerged underwater. Alligators use their tails and snouts to build dens or “gator holes” beside and under lagoon banks. Their dens can be up to 20 feet deep made in the mud banks and soil. The alligators spend the cold months dormant in their dens as their body metabolism slows down to about 70 degrees. They can breathe by sticking their snouts through the den opening every 14 minutes or so.

The alligator’s massive body is covered in what is known as an “armor” of embedded bony plates called osteoderms or scutes. They have a muscular flat tail of amazing strength. The alligator’s massive tail makes up 2/3rds of the body, essential to their swimming and self-defense. The male reaches an average length of 11-12 feet, and the female reaches an average of 8-9 feet long. Exceptionally large male alligators can weigh up to 1,000 pounds to almost half a ton!!! Most of the alligators around Hilton Head Island vary in size between 4-9 feet long. The alligator has up to 80 teeth at a time. When its teeth wear down, new ones grow so that over an alligator’s lifetime, it may go through 2,000 to 3,000 teeth! Now that’s a lot of teeth in that toothy grin of theirs! Their powerful jaws exert an average strength of 3,200 pounds of pressure which is used when alligators drag their victims underwater and drown them before consuming them.

Don’t think for a minute that smaller alligators pose less of a threat! Between the wickedly strong tail, insane jaw force and a top speed of 11 mph over short distances – the alligator is not an animal to take a chance with! Compare this to the human running world-record for the 100 yard dash which is 20 mph. So alligators can move very quickly, especially when they are warm, so never get closer than 60 feet from them.

During the time a mother alligator has eggs or young that she is protecting is about the only circumstance an alligator will attack without provocation. So please use extra caution during alligator nesting months. Steer clear of (or closely inspect first) wooded and brushy areas near lagoons. Nesting months are typically May through August.

I’m sure you’ve seen the signs sprinkled around Hilton Head Island and the Spinnaker locations that warn against feeding alligators. Besides risking a hefty fine, feeding an alligator is a death sentence for the alligator. Once it is accustomed to human food it becomes less cautious around people and can become aggressive which translates to it being a “nuisance alligator” which will be removed and likely killed. Alligators don’t ask nicely for food either! A nuisance alligator is defined as “one that exhibits aggressive behavior toward humans or domestic animals, has become habituated to people, shows symptoms of some debilitating illness or injury, or inhabits recreational waters intended primarily for swimming.” –2014 Gator Guide by SC Department of Natural Resources.

Have I given you a healthy fear of the American Alligator while also instilling certain awe in this indomitable being? The alligator is as much a local Hilton Head Island resident as I am. I’ve known since I was a little girl how to co-exist with them in peace. As a youth, I walked past alligators daily in the warmer months to reach the beach across the street from my home. The beach lay just over the green at the end of the Harbour Town Golf Links 15th hole. I knew not to play by the banks of lagoons, nor did I ever even have the interest to feed an alligator. Even as a child, an alligator was seen by me as a beautiful, yet to-be-feared part of our Lowcountry wildlife. Still today, as an islander I am well-versed in its habits and I know what not to do around an alligator. My hope is that they continue to thrive as an integral part of Hilton Head Island wildlife. You and I and the American Alligator can indeed live in harmony.

Here are some helpful tips to remember:

  • Alligators can move extremely fast over short distances
  • Alligators can propel up to five feet out of the water with their tails so not only can they run fast but they can leap to grab something on shore or in the water very rapidly
  • Do not swim in water (or let your pets swim in water) known to be alligator habitat [which is freshwater and brackish water (salt/freshwater mix) water lagoons, marsh, swamps, rivers, ponds and lakes]
  • Just because you don’t see an alligator on the surface of the water doesn’t mean there aren’t any in a body of water
  • Do not let small children or pets near lagoon banks
  • Do not harass alligators (throw things, poke, yell, etc.)
  • Do not feed alligators
  • Never disturb an alligator nest
  • Run in a zig-zag pattern if ever in the not-so-fortunate position of being chased by an alligator
  • It’s illegal to recreationally hunt alligators in South Carolina. (There are very stringent guidelines to apply for and receive an alligator hunting license, specific season and locations, and one alligator allotted per hunter per season.)

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