American Alligator

Alligator mississippiensis

Alligator (26K)

© TPWD 2003/Photo by Earl Nottingham


Body length: 6-14 ft.

The American alligator, Alligator mississippiensis, once on the verge of extinction, has made a tremendous come-back over the past 30 years. In 1969, Texas provided complete protection for the American alligator and classified it as endangered after passage of the Texas Endangered Species Act in 1973. Under this protection, along with Federally implemented regulations eliminating unregulated alligator hide markets in the United States, the species has made a full recovery and was delisted from the status of endangered in 1985.

The American alligator is a large, semi-aquatic, armored reptile that is related to crocodiles. Almost black in color, the American alligator has prominent eyes and nostrils with coarse scales over the entire body. It has a large, long head with visible upper teeth along the edge of the jaws. It's front feet have 5 toes, while rear feet have 4 toes that are webbed. An agile swimmer, the American alligator often floats or swims with only it's eyes and nostrils exposed.

The American alligator is carnivorous, and will eat anything it can catch, including fish, turtles, lizards, snakes, small mammals, waterbirds, crustaceans and other alligators. They can be very vocal; the young typically make a bark and adults will bellow, grunt, or hiss, depending on the circumstances.

American alligators normally avoid humans, but American alligators can become perceived as a nuisance when they establish territories around people. As human populations in Texas continue to expand, there have been an increased number of encounters between people and alligators. Alligators have been known to prey on pets and must be treated with caution. Alligators can be surprisingly quick on land and are capable of running quickly over short distances.

Life History

Alligators in Texas are mostly inactive from mid-October until early March, when they brumate. Alligators emerge from brumation in March. March 1 through May 30 is the peak time for breeding and nesting. During breeding season, females stay close to home territories while males may occupy ranges up to ten square miles. The female will build a nest of local vegetation up to 6 feet across and several feet high. She lays her eggs in the center of this mound, allowing the decaying vegetation and sunlight to provide the warmth necessary to incubate the eggs. Females typically lay over 35 eggs. Each egg is about 3 inches long. The eggs incubate for about 2 months, and the female will watch and defend the nest during this time. As the young hatch, they "yip" and the female will assist them by digging them out of the nest. Hatchling alligators are about 9 inches long and will stay near the female for up to two years. The female will continue to protect the young during this period. During breeding season, alligators from 4 to 5 feet long are also very transient while searching for territories of their own. Periods of extreme weather conditions such as drought or heavy rains can result in an increase in alligator movements.

Habitat and Distribution

Alligators are found in or near water. The American alligator is common in swamps, rivers, bayous, and marshes of the southern U.S., including the eastern third of Texas. While typically found in fresh-water, they can tolerate brackish water as well. Formerly an endangered species, the alligator is now a protected game animal in Texas. Special permits are required to hunt, raise, or possess alligators.