Back to Nature (Published on - Aug. 18, 2004)
Dinosaurs at our back doors
Photo by Rick Tremmel
Alligators are survivors and are interesting to observe from a safe distance.
Florida residents recently acquired first-hand knowledge and experience about what it takes to survive in a tropical climate. We will survive. Batteries and flash lights were sold out around Tampa Bay by noon the day before Hurricane Charley was to make landfall in our region. We learned to take nature seriously. There were lineups at the gas pumps as early as 9 a.m. By 7 p.m. it was visually apparent by the streets of boarded up windows, closed businesses and prepared EMS officials and staff that Tampa Bay residents were taking this situation seriously. We learned respect, fear and awe of nature. Human Motto: Be Prepared.

A few of our planet’s oldest species have survived by living by this simple rule: be prepared. One of the most ancient beings on our planet is the indomitable alligator, a real dinosaur. Plain and simple, they were here before us and they will probably be here after we’ve made a mess of things and are gone. If there is one warm body of fresh clean water somewhere in the subtropics you’ll find a member of the crocodilian family. Dinosaur Motto: We will survive. Be prepared.

Alligators, of the crocodilian family, evolved from a common ancestor with dinosaurs that were walking on earth even before other reptiles, such as lizards, snakes and turtles appeared. Although alligators are classified as reptiles they are in fact closely related to birds, whose ancestors were also dinosaurs. Theory has it that the feathers on birds are actually elongated scales. Alligators and their relatives are the last of the living reptiles that are closely related to dinosaurs. Although the Alligator is considered threatened they are making a healthy comeback.

Alligators have short, blunt, rounded snouts; most crocodile species have longer, pointed snouts. The upper teeth of the alligator show when the mouth is closed. Eyes, nostrils, and ears are located on the same plane allowing for entire body to be submerged, except for these organs. A protective covering of bony plates lies under the skin across the back. Even with armor, the animal is extremely flexible and quick.

Alligators are usually between 6 and 16 feet in length, although any over 12 feet is rare. They have a long powerful tail for swimming. The largest recorded American alligator was 19 feet in length. Female alligators rarely exceed 9 feet in length, but males can grow much larger. The Florida state record for length is a 14 foot 5/8 inch male from Lake Monroe in Seminole County. The Florida record for weight is a 1,043 pound (13 feet, 10.5 inches long) male from Orange Lake in Alachua County.

Large alligators will eat anything they can overpower. Alligators do not chew their food, they swallow items whole or tear chunks off by grasping and rolling. They are known to stash food until decomposition begins. Stones are swallowed to aid in digestion, they do not recognize the difference between domestic pets and wild food sources. When they are hungry, alligators act on their hunting instinct and might attempt to feed on your house pet if given the opportunity. It is not uncommon in Florida to observe people walking their pets up to the water’s edge where ponds and lakes are clearly marked, BEWARE OF ALLIGATORS. These are the same people that cry for the removal and extermination of the alligator when “Muffy or Mitsy” becomes a nice, light snack.

It doesn’t require the intelligence of a brain surgeon to ascertain who is at real fault in this situation, does it? Some people don’t use just plain, old common sense when up against nature at her wildest. Alligators are prepared. Alligators are opportunistic feeders; adults eat fish, turtles, wading birds, snakes (including venomous snakes), frogs and small mammals they discover near the shoreline of their habitat. Young alligators feed on small fish and aquatic insects, but in turn, they can be food for raccoons, crabs, various types of wading birds and fish. The ancient alligator deserves to be respected. Alligators do not live in “crisis” mode. Thoughtfully, methodically, this skilled survivor is prepared for almost any situation. Alligator Motto: We will survive. Be prepared.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Safety Guidelines

1. Don’t feed the alligators.

This is a most important rule! Providing food for these wild animals not only makes them bolder and encourages them to seek out people, it also alters their natural diet in an unhealthy way.

2. Keep your distance.

Although they may look slow and awkward, these animals are extremely powerful and can move with a startling burst of speed on land over short distances. A safe distance from an adult alligator is about 60 feet.

3. Never disturb nests or small alligators.

Some female alligators protect their young and may become aggressive if provoked. A baby alligator should never be captured, even if the mother is not visible. She may be watching you and decide to take action to protect her baby.

4. Keep your pets and children away from alligators.

5. Don’t swim in areas that are known alligator habitats.

Want to see dinosaurs? Get out onto Florida’s waterways via canoe, kayak or slow moving boat. Navigate through wetlands, on lakes, rivers, swamps, and brackish coastal marshlands and you’ll discover dinosaurs: the American alligator, back to nature.

Karen can be reached at

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