Alligators were in the news again this morning. The article in the paper said that some guy in Louisiana bought a plot of land next to an alligator-infested swamp, and the reptiles ate his beagle and spooked his wife. He has tabled plans to start a cattle operation on his acreage because of fears that hundreds of gators would flock to his land and eat steak morning noon and night.
I feel bad for the guy, besieged by large reptiles, bereft of his dog and deserted by his wife; but I must confess– I love alligators. Was there ever such a successful, fearsome and interesting critter?
Think about it. They were top predators when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and they still rule the swamp today. They will eat any creature they can get their mouths around, starting with fish and ending with deer. They are such masters of their environment that they alter and shape it to their liking. They sing. They dance. They guard their eggs and young with tenderness and ferocity. They even use tools. All this sophisticated behavior, using nothing but its tiny little reptile brain!
You think I am making this stuff up? Let me tell you about alligators. Let me help you to respect them, and to think of them as more than something to make pricey cowboy boots from.
Alligators are engineers. They make ponds. Called ‘gator holes, these dug-out pools serve as reservoirs during dry spells. They provide good environment for lots of plant and animal life, some of which the gator will eat.
Alligators dig tunnels beneath the banks of their ponds: cozy gator-caves into which they retreat if the weather is too cold, or just to meditate on life and wait for an unwary raccoon or turtle to happen by. I saw a gator munch up a turtle once. It sounded like cracking peanut brittle and it gave me the shivers.
Alligators sing. They don’t have any vocal chords, but they sing anyway, in the contra-bass register; producing tones so low that the water jumps and fizzes around them. They like the key of B flat. They stick their heads straight up out of the water and dance to their singing. They sing, like humans, for a number of urgent reasons, all of which must be paid attention to.
I first heard a gator song while kayaking the Turner River in the Everglades. It was performed by a large bull named One-Eyed Willie. We had paddled (quietly, respectfully) past him and Mrs. One-Eyed, as they basked in the morning sun. When we came back at noon, the missus was still basking, but Willie had disappeared.
As I was musing on his whereabouts, I heard his song– felt it really, right through the bottom of the boat. The sound seemed to come from up close, from far away, from the mouth of hell. Every hair on my body stood up as the song rattled my bones and set my heart pounding. Our tour guide suggested that we leave the area with all due speed…
Was Willie threatening us? Serenading his wife? Just practicing? I don’t know, and it would not have mattered. I was overcome by the sheer blind primal terror of it.
I vowed never to go kayaking with alligators again. But two years later I was back, and this time we saw gators dancing, almost before we launched the boats. Two bulls, bellowing and vibrating the water. Yes, we launched the boats– we paddled tactfully past, giving them both a wide berth.
Lady gators guard their eggs, then carry the babies to the water after they hatch. They encourage the babies to ride on the maternal back; which is the safest place for them to be. Don’t nobody mess with lady gators with babies on board; they will threaten or attack at this stage. We gave the moms a wide berth also. This is not so easy on a narrow, drought-shrunken little river, but we were strongly motivated to do so and we did.
Do alligators really use tools? Documented. Gators adorn their noses with twigs and branches, and, slipping just under the surface of the water, they wait for some unwary bird to perch on those twigs as its last act on earth.
They can also run pretty fast on land, in short sprints anyway. They get up on their tippy-toes and book it at about 11 mph. A gentleman in Loxahachie State Park told me this interesting fact. He was standing on the edge of a boat slip educating me and tossing marshmallows to a huge gator a few yards offshore. The reptile was loving on those sweets, swimming closer and closer to my knowledgeable friend… I left them to it.
Gator scales are rows of solar panels, absorbing the heat from the sun efficiently so the reptile’s metabolism can function. If the gator gets too hot, it opens its jaws for some evaporating action, revealing its shell-pink tongue and gums. Very pretty.
When a gator bites a large creature, it holds on tight and does the death-roll, spinning around and round until the chunk it had glommed onto twists off. They do just like you do when you wrestle a drumstick off the Thanksgiving turkey.
Alligators seldom bite humans. There are only few recorded cases of alligator attacks on people. If they do bite it is almost always a mistake, and I am sure they are sorry afterwards. Cocker spaniels bite humans much more frequently than alligators do, but cocker spaniels do not perform the death roll.
So, how about those alligators? Do you love them now? Whatever your feelings, you have to agree that they are awesome animals. Watch, marvel, enjoy, do not feed or annoy, and you’ll be fine with them.