This Month in Science – All About Alligators

Now that the summer heat is in full swing, you may start seeing more alligators out and about. Take a stroll around Greenfield Lake and the likelihood of seeing one is pretty high. The American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) primarily lives in wetland areas like those in our own corner of North Carolina and across the North American southeast.

Alligators are cold-blooded animals meaning they cannot regulate their own body temperature. They rely on heat from the sun to stay warm. During colder months, they undergo a type of hibernation called brumation, where their body temperature lowers, they eat very little, and barely move. When alligators brumate, they usually rest at the bottom of the lake/swamp or in a gator hole dug into the land. They come up for air about once a day. Back in 2018, North Carolina experienced extreme cold during the winter. A handful of alligators got trapped in icy waters at the Shallotte River Swamp Park making it impossible for them stay at the bottom of the swamp. These alligators survived by sticking their snouts through the ice, so they would be able to breathe until the ice thawed. They are uniquely adapted to survive in cold water and thrive in warm water.

An alligator’s ability to grow is dependent upon water temperature: they only grow when the water is warm enough for them to be active and feed. Like most reptiles, reproductive maturity of alligators is based on size. Both male and female alligators need to be around six feet in length before they can reproduce. Because temperatures are generally cooler in North Carolina, it can take males 14-16 years and females 18-19 years before they reach maturity. By comparison, both male and female alligators in Florida take only 8.9-12.4 years to reach six feet. The largest male alligator found in North Carolina was 12.5 feet long. The longest female, just over 8 feet.

Alligators build nests of vegetation in shallow waters and lay between 35-50 eggs. The sex of a baby alligator is determined by the temperature of the nest during a specific time of incubation: high or low temperatures will yield females, while intermediate temperatures will yield males. Alligator mothers tend to the nest, carry hatchlings around, and protect their babies through their early years of life. After two to three years of living near their hatch site, alligators will move on and establish their own territory.

In the early 1970s, alligators had been hunted almost to extinction. Conservation efforts have allowed their population to rebound and thrive. Biologists used to believe that alligators only inhabited freshwater areas, but a recent study suggests that this assumption was a result of habitat destruction by human development. Alligators are now being found in unexpected places, such as saltwater marshes. Researchers believe this might be due to their expanded numbers increasing the territory range of alligators back to what it once was. There’s no reason to be alarmed though because alligators are generally shy and secretive. As long as you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.

Be a citizen scientist!

A citizen scientist is anyone who gathers data to participate in a scientific research project. Anyone can be a citizen scientist and there are many different projects to participate in. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission needs your help to track alligator sightings! If you see an alligator, upload a picture of it to N.C. Alligators on or with the free iNaturalist app on iPhone and Android. Use caution when taking photos and remember to never feed an alligator! Data from the project will be used to identify areas with frequent human-alligator interactions and hopefully reduce the number of negative interactions that occur.

What to do if you see an alligator

Follows these tips to stay safe during an alligator encounter:

  • Alligators are inherently shy and secretive. If you leave them alone, they generally will not attack.
  • Never approach, provoke, or feed. Feeding can make alligators more aggressive when they see humans.
  • Always keep your pet on a leash in areas where alligators have been sighted.
  • Don’t swim in areas known to inhabit alligators.
  • Be cautious around dawn and dusk when alligators are most active.

Previous Columns

May: Rain Gardens
April: Bald Cypress Trees and The Climate Record
March: Ocean Waves
February: The Scientific Method
January 2021: Static Electricity
December: Surviving the Winter Season
November: Marbled Salamanders
October: Controlling Wildfires
September: The Equinox and Changing Seasons
August: Perseid Meteor Shower
July: Plastic Free July
June: Sargasso Sea
May: Getting to Mars
April: Earth Day 50th Anniversary
March: Ghost Trees
February: Fire
January 2020: Biodiversity of the Cape Fear
December: Snowflakes
November: Carolina Bays
October: The Longleaf Pine
September: Jellyfish
August: What’s in Your Childhood Chemistry Set?
July: What Happened to the Dinosaurs?
June: Hurricane Season
April: Quantum Levitation
March: Venus Flytrap
February: A Shifting Magnetic Field
January 2019: Giant Ground Sloth


Buster the Alligator, 1978
Credit: Hugh Morton Photographs and Films #P0081, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library
814 Market Street • Wilmington, NC 28401 • Phone 910-798-4370 • Fax 910-798-4382
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