There's that food chain thing again.
Baby alligators are only about six to eight inches long when they
hatch in August or September. Although the pod of 30-60 hatchlings stays
close to mama for six months or more, mother alligators cannot protect
each little 'gator from all the predators out there.
These little guys are already predators, however.
yolk sack that protrudes from their stomachs when they hatch provides
food for about a week. The mother doesn't
provide them with any food. If they're lucky, they might find some food
scraps she left behind. Mostly they're on their own. They eat whatever they can fit into their
tiny mouths: insects, worms, crustaceans, minnows, tadpoles, and
frogs are usually on the menu.
Fortunately, alligators require very little food from October to
That helps prevent mom from eating her
young! (See section farther below about the diet of adult
The baby 'gators that do survive in the wild grow about one foot a year up to six
years of age, when they are considered adults and their growth rate slows down. As they get bigger and smarter
the odds of survival increase in their favor . . . and their menu
choices broaden to larger and larger prey such as fish, snakes, wading
birds, hawks and owls, river otters, raccoons, turtles, deer, and other
If you remember from the opening quote, most of those are the same critters that like to eat
tender baby alligators!
That's some cosmic justice, eh? What goes around, comes around.
We aren't the only visitors drawn to Brazos Bend SP because of the
alligators. They are one of the main reasons the park is near the top of
the popularity charts in this whole country, not just in Texas. This is quite
possibly the best place to see a healthy, un-hunted inland alligator
Brazos Bend is home to about three hundred adult American alligators
that are six feet long and over. There are many others that are younger and shorter.
This population has held steady since the park opened in
1984, which says something about the balance of the park's food chain;
hunting or relocation to lower the number of 'gators hasn't been
required so far.
Brazos Bend wasn't on our travel radar until near the end of February
when we attended a naturalist's talk about
alligators at Huntsville State Park. We've never seen any alligators in
the wild at HSP in several extended winter visits there, although signs
warning about their presence are prominently displayed around the park.
We joke to each other about the "phantom" alligators, although we
usually don't let Cody get in the lake, creeks, or swamps there --
just in case.
The only alligators we've ever seen at
Huntsville State Park are the two cute little five- or six-month
old babies that were hatched at Brazos Bend State Park last August or September.
The babies Huntsville displays and uses for educational purposes
are usually ones that are orphaned by their mothers and
rescued by park rangers before they hatch. They live in an aquarium in the
nature center. They get to come out to be petted by visitors
when rangers or volunteers are manning the center and conducting weekend
When they are about a year old, a foot long, and
starting to bite, they are released into the wild
-- sounds like a good plan! That's also about the time
Huntsville receives more newborns from Brazos Bend.
After that interesting and informative lecture, we just had to
check out Alligator Central at Brazos Bend!
The word "alligator" is a derivation of "el lagarto," Spanish
for "lizard." These are some big lizards, but nowhere
near as big as their prehistoric ancestors.
The alligators that are native to the Southeastern part of the
United States are called American alligators. They are one of
about twenty-two species in the crocodile family and are
uniquely American. They live in
freshwater or brackish swamps, marshes, wetlands, lakes, and
rivers in Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida,
Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
The largest alligator populations are in Florida and Louisiana.
American alligator skeleton in the BBSP
American alligators were prolific in the region before humans
nearly decimated their numbers through hunting and encroaching
on their habitat. For a while they were on the endangered
species list. Their numbers increased enough that there is now
an alligator hunting season, like deer and wild pig hunting
seasons, in some areas of the country. These hunts are strictly regulated.
As mentioned, there has never been a need for alligator hunting
at Brazos Bend State Park because the population has remained
steady since the park opened in 1984.
Alligator skull (L) and crocodile skull
(R); the display at BBSP explains the differences.
Alligators that live in the wild are still a "protected"
species, with rules and regulations that ensure they
don't face extinction again. At Huntsville and Brazos Bend State Parks
it is illegal to feed, harass, or harm the alligators and
warned to stay at least thirty feet away from them.
Many of us get much closer than that on the trails around
40-Acre, Elm, and Creekfield lakes and on the Spillway Trail, a
levee that bisects Pilant Slough.
A large 'gator swims silently in Pilant
Slough near the trail.
Alligator farms are a growing industry to supply more readily
available meat and hides to folks who like products made from
those parts -- and to protect their wild cousins. Think
'gator-trimmed purses, boots, and wallets . . .
SURVIVAL OF THE SMARTEST
Alligators are in their element in the water of the swamps and
lakes in their natural territory. They maneuver much faster in
the water than on land. However, they can't breathe under water.
They require oxygen and have to surface periodically to get it.
At Huntsville SP the alligators live in swampy areas or in dens
under banks along the far edge of Lake Raven, usually not near
At Brazos Bend, they live pretty much anywhere they want to
because there is so much more water in that park!
These three alligators are dozing in the
sun right along the trail at Elm Lake.
see several dozen juvenile and adult alligators quite easily
from the trails at Brazos Bend on warm, sunny days around
40-Acre, Elm, and Creekfield Lakes and along the Spillway Trail.
In fact, you have to be careful not to step on some of them!
Visitors are often fearful of walking within a few feet of large
alligators but it's safe -- as long as they don't do
something stupid to frighten the 'gator! A few other
people are so bold they'll get within a couple feet of an
alligator to have their photo taken. That's not very
The alligators are all there on cooler, cloudier days, too, just harder to
spot because they spend more time under water to keep warm:
On our first day in the park Jim took this
picture of a 'gator that is mostly under water.
The ones you can see are the hardiest survivors. The
perils of alligator propagation are very interesting. Not only
are newly-hatched and young alligators extremely vulnerable to
predators, as described at the beginning of this entry, the
eggs are also considered very tasty by many of the same
Mama alligators do their best to outwit these predators by
building a virtual fortress to protect their eggs. The large nests
are so impenetrable that the hatchlings can't get out until
their mother hears their high-pitched chirps and digs them out.
Alligators breed in April and May. When attracting a female,
males produce a loud rumbling noise that can be heard over a
mile away. We could already hear the beginning of the bellowing
at Brazos Bend the last week of March. Very cool.
This cute little guy is 17-18" long,
indicating he was born about 1½
A mother alligator spends a lot of time building her nest in
June, usually within about thirty feet of the water so she can
keep an eye on her babies.
When she finds what she considers to be an appropriate location
for her nest, she clears a large area of ground. Then she
gathers as much vegetative material as possible on land and in
the nearby water to build a large mound that is typically two to
three feet high and up to eight feet in diameter. Mud helps hold
the reeds, grasses, leaves, twigs, and other vegetation
The mother digs a hole in the center, lays from thirty to sixty
eggs inside, then packs the materials down around her eggs until
the mound is solid and tight.
The nest is similar to a compost pile in that it warms up as the
vegetative material composes. During the two months that it
takes for the eggs to incubate the mother regulates the
temperature by digging into the mound to release heat or by
adding more mulch to make it warmer.
A young alligator suns him(her?)self on a
fallen tree at the edge of Creekfield Lake.
Note all the green aquatic plants AKA "pond
scum" sticking to the 'gator.
Even more amazing is that the temperature of the nest also
determines the sex of the babies! The cooler temperatures at the
bottom of the next produce females; the warmer
temperatures at the top produce males. This
process leads to almost even populations of males and females.
Wonder how many millennia it took for alligators to evolve like
this in order to survive?
This larger 'gator is resting on a log but
appears to be
floating on top of the reddish plants in
the swamp water.
When the babies begin to hatch in August and September the
mother literally digs them out of the mound. She picks up each
egg in her mouth, carries it to the water's edge, carefully
cracks it open in her mouth, and releases it.
Here's an amazing photo from a slide show at the park that shows
the mother releasing one of her babies into the water:
She repeats this
over and over until all the hatchlings are freed from the nest.
MINIMAL HUMAN INTERFERENCE
Unfortunately, sometimes the nests are too close to water and
vulnerable to flooding -- or more often, too close to
trails and vulnerable to human interference. Situations like
that create unique challenges for rangers, who try to protect
both the eggs and too-curious visitors without interfering too
much with either the alligators or humans.
The most dangerous alligators in the parks are mothers who are
protecting their eggs or hatchlings. You don't want to try to
pick up a baby whose mama is nearby! That pretty much applies to
any wild species of animal.
Fake alligator? This log sure looks like
one from a distance!
Some of the rangers' solutions to awkwardly-placed nests are ingenious. One of them told us about a clever idea he had several years ago
that redirected visitors to a fake nest he built in order to
protect the real nest nearby. Mama had built her nest right on the
levee trail next to one of the popular lakes. A large sign and
fencing around the fake nest drew visitors' attention and they
didn't even notice the real nest! Mama was happy, the nest was
safe, and the babies hatched normally two months later.
Rangers sometimes have to harvest orphaned
alligator eggs at Brazos Bend.
These two photos are from a video we watched at
the Nature Center.
A helping hand is required if Mama's not
there to crack the egg open.
Relocating a nest is a good way to kill or orphan the babies but
sometimes it's the only solution.
That is one way the rangers at Brazos Bend
obtain alligator eggs. Another is when something happens to the
mother and she doesn't retrieve her babies as they begin to hatch.
When the rangers harvest orphaned eggs they incubate them until
they hatch, then release them into the wild or use them for
educational purposes in the nature centers at various parks
until the next summer. Brazos Bend has about six baby 'gators in
its own aquarium this spring. They get lots of attention:
Trained volunteers at the Nature Center let
the baby alligators that are kept in the
All the other alligators do just fine with no or minimal
human contact at Brazos Bend and Huntsville. The rangers vigorously enforce park rules about bothering alligators and
they try to estimate how many of the critters live in the parks, but they
don't feed them or do anything
that would interfere with their natural existence there.
THAT'S A LOT OF ALLIGATOR!
Before American alligators were hunted to near-extinction and
their natural territories were larger, they used to live longer
and grow bigger. The largest alligator on record, estimated at
100 years old, was 19 feet 2 inches long! That was back in 1890
and has not been verified to everyone's satisfaction.
Since it's hard to determine the exact age of an alligator in
the wild, scientists can only say with any certainty the size
and age of alligators that are held in captivity. They range
from 6-8 inches when they hatch. They grow about a foot each
year for the first five or six years, then the rate of growth slows down as they mature.
Three large 'gators hang out on a little
"island" in the slough along the Spillway Trail
average size of a mature female American alligator is 8-10 feet;
males typically grow 11-15 feet long. Max size is about 16 feet.
The naturalist at Huntsville said the alligators that live there
tend to range from 6 to 9 feet long. They often get 10-12 feet
at Brazos Bend, where it's warmer and there are more food
sources. Jim and I have seen lots of those larger alligators
here at Brazos Bend.
The average life span of a female American alligator in
captivity is 35 years for a female and 53 years for a male, less
in the wild.
SUPER*CROC: SIZE DID MATTER BACK THEN
Size-wise, modern alligators and crocodiles pale in comparison
One day we borrowed the National Geographic DVD titled
"SuperCroc" from the park
nature center. This is a very interesting video about the giant
prehistoric crocodiles that roamed around northern Africa about 110 million
years ago, give or take a few years.
How big? When scientists put together all the bones they
excavated at one site in the Sahara Desert in the early 2000s,
they were able to build a 40-foot, ten-ton crocodile that was large
enough to eat some of the dinosaurs it shared turf with.
That's a lot of croc!
Depiction of SuperCroc by Raul
This fascinating film followed paleontologist Paul Sereno and
reptile expert Brady Barr to Florida, Africa, South America,
India, and Australia to study and measure the largest species of
modern crocodiles. A year after the fossils of "SuperCroc" were
excavated, scientists had enough information and bones for a
model expert to build the giant Sarcosuchus imperator.
Since then, the model has been on tour. This
website gives more information
about where you can see it and the science behind SuperCroc.
DON'T MESS WITH TEXAS *OR* ITS ALLIGATORS
There are signs all over this state's highways that warn, "Don't
Mess with Texas!" The slogan became popular as a way to
reduce litter, but it also exemplifies the feisty nature of the
people in this state.
You really don't want to mess with any
of Texas' alligators, either. Although the 'gators at Brazos
Bend seem to ignore visitors who walk near them on the trails,
they can move much faster than you'd think and they have the strongest known bite
of any animal.
This large 'gator right next to the
Spillway Trail has a typical "smile" on his face.
His eyes are open but many 'gators keep
their eyes closed when people walk or ride by.
The basic instinct of an alligator to bite down
on its prey and not let go is graphically illustrated in a story
the naturalist at Huntsville SP told us. One scientist who studied alligators
many decades ago conducted an experiment in which he placed a steel plate in
animal's mouth. The 'gator reportedly latched on to the plate,
bit down, and didn't let go until its teeth had been pushed into
the roof of its mouth!
I wouldn't want to think what it would do to my arm or leg.
On a warm day it's common to see 'gators
with their mouths open. It's a little
disconcerting to walk by them until you
know it's just a way for them to cool off.
The naturalist showed us the skull of a young alligator about
four years old. It was already quite capable of tearing off the
limb of many of the animals it preys on. Alligators have 80
conical teeth that are used to grasp food, not chew it. They
bite off what they can swallow, then go back for another piece.
APEX PREDATORS IN THE FOOD CHAIN
What do alligators eat?
Just about anything they want to!!
I talked above about the diet of baby alligators. As they
grow they hunt for larger fish, frogs, mollusks, and small
mammals like mice.
Adult alligators really will eat about anything that
prefer fish, turtles, birds, snakes, small mammals like
raccoons and possums, and smaller alligators but they have also been known to eat
deer, sheep, cattle, pigs, panthers, bobcats, bears -- and domestic pets like dogs.
It is thought that a large portion of an alligator's diet is
Wow. It's really an alligator-eat-alligator world, not a
Graphic slide from an alligator
presentation we attended;
the 'gator victim is so large that I'm guessing it was
lame, ill, or very old.
Alligators are opportunistic feeders, usually waiting patiently for a
meal to come to them. If need be, they can move very quickly for short
distances on land and farther distances in water.
cold-blooded reptiles, they don't need to eat every day and they really
don't need to eat all that much. A full-grown alligator can survive on
something the size of a raccoon for a week. They eat very little from October to
March, especially the ones that live farther north and almost go into
Next meal?? Smaller 'gators like
the 3-foot one on the left often don't
live to adulthood.
It is very rare for an American alligator to maim or kill a human. They
aren't naturally aggressive. You really have to provoke an alligator to
get it that riled up. Ranger Dave says he's the only person to ever get
bitten by a 'gator at Brazos Bend (long but interesting story). It is
more likely for a crocodile to bite or kill a human than for an
alligator to do so.
Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the humans who hunted
alligators to near extinction and continue to crave alligator
meat and consumer items made from their skins. I guess that
makes us the ultimate predator.
Next entry: Marsh Madness -- lots of things
to do and see at Brazos Bend State Park
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil