Dinosaurs went extinct millions of years ago.
Or did they?
Among us, in some of our most populous countries, prehistoric reptiles still roam. These reptiles, capable of growing to over 3 meters, are ferocious hunters and consume a wide variety of prey. Alligators!
But you might be wondering, do alligators have predators?
Despite their fearsome reputation, alligators aren’t always at the top of the food chain. While few species will dare tackle a fully grown adult gator, fish, birds, mammals, and other reptiles all consume alligator eggs and juvenile alligators. Aside from humans other alligators, pose the biggest threat to adult alligators through cannibalism and intraspecific fighting.
We’ll be exploring some of the predators of both the eggs and the young of alligators, as well as taking a look at species that have been known to attack fully grown adults. But before we dive head first, let’s first look at what an alligator really is and their different life stages.
What (Exactly) Is An Alligator?
Alligators are prehistoric reptiles and, like crocodiles and caimans, belong to the order Crocodilia.
There are just two species of alligator found in the world: the American alligator, which is distributed throughout the Southeastern USA, and the critically endangered Chinese alligator, which has a limited range of just small pockets in Eastern China.
Although the American alligator (~3.5 meters) is significantly larger than the Chinese alligator (~1.5 meters), both species have powerful tails which they use for both locomotion, as well as defense.
Unlike crocodiles, which typically have a pointy V-shaped snout, alligators possess a broad U-shaped snout. Typically, teeth are not visible when an alligator has its mouth shut.
Like other reptiles, alligators are cold-blooded. This means they rely on their external environment to warm up – either in the form of basking in the sun, or by digging holes to trap heat.
In the water, they remain insulated via their thick skin. When floating on the water’s surface, alligators are commonly mistaken for logs – only their protruding eyes and nostrils, which can be found on the top of their elongated snout, give their position away.
Both species of alligators are carnivorous, feeding on a range of species – from aquatic fish and invertebrates to water birds and terrestrial mammals. They can be found hunting and resting close to a water source, such as lakes and swamps.
Life Cycle Of An Alligator
Duh – baby gator, adult gator. Right?
Well, the life cycle of an alligator is somewhat complicated, as we’ll soon discover – from intimate copulation to controlled nest incubation.
Despite their cold appearances, gators are tender and loving creatures – depending on who you ask.
Females don’t go around mating with the first male they see. They need to be wooed.
So, the first step in the life cycle of alligators is courtship.
To announce their presence, male gators make low bellowing sounds from the water. These bellowing sounds are emitted from the lungs. However, the frequency is often too low to be heard by us humans. Instead, the water around the alligator starts to dance and ripple.
If this doesn’t work, the male will thrash their tail and slap the water with the jaws.
When a female shows signs of interest, only then can courtship begin.
Alligator courtship is as intimate as it is complex. By rubbing and pressing their snouts and backs on one another, both the male and female can gauge the other’s strengths. The stronger the gator, the more suitable they are to sire offspring.
If both sexes are satisfied with one another’s strength, copulation can begin.
From here on out, the female takes full control.
Alligators are oviparous. This means they lay eggs – much like a bird.
She will build an elevated nest, often made of mud, sticks, and other plant matter. Here, she will lay a clutch of up to 50 eggs (although clutches seem to average at approximately 35 eggs).
After her clutch is laid, the female alligator will cover the eggs with surrounding vegetation. Decaying vegetation gives off heat, which provides a natural incubation for the developing gators.
Like turtles, the sex of the developing alligator is determined on the external environment.
Temperatures between 82 – 86 degrees Fahrenheit will produce female alligators. Between temperatures of 90 – 93 degrees Fahrenheit, males appear. If a nest fluctuates in temperature, a mix of females and males develop.
After around 65 days (American alligators) or 70 days (Chinese alligators), baby alligators are ready to hatch. But this is a process in its own right. I think that’s worthy of another subheading.
Alligators And Parental Care
During the incubation process, the mother alligator will guard her nest with military precision.
Towards the end of the incubation period – be it 65 or 70 days depending on the species – the baby gators will start to emit a series of squeaking sounds and start breaking free of their egg.
After hearing these alarm calls, the ever-vigilant mother will begin to remove the surrounding vegetation of her nest.
As we’ll soon discover, the world is a dangerous place for baby gators. So, to avoid predation, the mother will carry her hatchlings, via her mouth or on her back as soon as they emerge from the nest.
Did you read that right? Via her mouth? A mouth that is capable of delivering so much devastation?
As far as parental care is concerned, the mouth of a mother alligator is one of the safest places.
Out of an average clutch size of 35 eggs, it is estimated that fewer than 5 alligators will survive to adulthood.
What Animals Eat Alligator Eggs?
Alligator eggs are high in protein, as well as vitamin D and choline; a compound that contributes towards fetal brain development.
Despite being a well-defended and somewhat risky food choice, alligator eggs are a rich source of protein and nutrients for a range of animals.
The eggs of the Chinese alligator are particularly vulnerable to predation by fish and birds.
For the eggs of American alligators, raccoons are thought to be one of the biggest predation risks.
Despite being largely herbivorous, wild hogs are also significant predators of alligator eggs. Using their powerful sense of smell, they are able to locate an alligator nest for a distance of up to 5 miles away. Wild hogs can dig up an alligator nest with their snout.
Other opportunistic hunters of alligator eggs include otters and wading birds. However, most alligator predation occurs once the hatchlings have left the nest.
What Animals Eat Alligators?
Despite the mother alligator’s best efforts of maternal protection, juvenile alligators are most vulnerable to predation.
Being carnivorous, young alligators start hunting the moment they hatch. Out of the watchful gaze of the mother, a wide range of species relish the opportunity to snap up an unattended juvenile alligator.
Wading birds, such as storks, herons, egrets, and ibises, have been known to nest in trees just above an alligator’s nest.
Nesting in such proximity to the impressive prehistoric reptiles has its advantages: protection from other predators, such as raccoons. However, there is also a price to pay: alligators will often prey upon fledgling chicks.
As brutal as it sounds, these birds often produce more offspring than they can care for. Almost as offspring insurance in the case of any predation eventualities.
Besides, the wading birds get their payback. Any recent juvenile hatchling that is missed by mom, or wanders astray, is quickly preyed upon by the birds.
Snapping turtles pose another threat to juvenile alligators. Found in slow moving streams, snapping turtles are opportunistic ambush hunters that will eat just about anything that can fit in their mouth – including juvenile alligators.
Not only do mammals such as raccoons and otters feast upon the eggs of alligators, but they are also notorious hunters of juvenile alligators.
Raccoons, with their high dexterity, can easily manipulate juvenile alligators.
Otters, with their streamlined, agile bodies, are adapted to hunting fish. Slower, recently hatched alligators, are no match for these intelligent mammals.
Even fish, such as the Florida gar, predate on juvenile alligators. Growing up to 1 meter, and armed with sharp teeth, the Florida gar is a near-apex predator.
Juvenile Alligator Defense
It all may sound a bit gloom and doom for any recently hatched alligator. Predators lurk in every corner – from the land, water, and air!
However, not all is lost.
For the first year, any hatchling that survives the initial nest emergence is under the protection of their mother.
After this year, the juveniles form their own protective group. Known as a pod, groups of young alligators, from a variety of different nests, will stick together. These pods can last until the juvenile alligators are around 3 years of age.
There are many advantages of sticking to a larger group. Firstly, there is safety in numbers. A predator can’t possibly eat all juveniles at one time, so it dilutes the predation risk.
Secondly, there is the many-eyes hypothesis. This hypothesis as to why animals live in groups suggests that the more animals there are in a group, the more eyes are on the lookout for potential predators. At the sight of a predator, young gators in a pod will let out a series of communicative squeaks to alert the others of the danger.
Once they reach over a meter in length, predation risk dramatically decreases. Most young gators will leave the safety of their pod and lead a solitary life.
Are There Any Animals That Can Eat A Fully Grown Alligator?
Depending on the sex, American alligators can grow up to lengths of 3.5 meters and weigh up to half a ton, or 1,000 lbs.
An adult alligator is a walking pantry, stocked with high end protein and healthy, albeit few, fats.
But, this pantry is guarded with thick skin, a well-armored body, and a powerful, muscular tail.
No animal in their right mind would even consider taking on a mature alligator. Right?
Well, safe to say, being an apex predator – an animal at the top of the food chain – the American alligator has few natural predators.
However, cannibalism and humans pose some of the biggest threats to the American alligator.
Another species, the Burmese python, is becoming a problem for mature American alligators.
Native to the forests of Southeast Asia, Burmese pythons have now spread to North America – either through accidental escapes or deliberate release.
These pythons, which can reach impressive sizes of over 7 meters, have an insatiable appetite and will feed on a variety of prey. This can include American alligators.
The following video might be a bit intense, but it showcases the problem that the Burmese pythons pose to the American alligators in Florida.
Human Relationships With Alligators
Along with other alligators, humans are the biggest threat to alligators.
Persecuted relentlessly in the 19th and 20th centuries, both the American and Chinese alligators suffered heavy population declines.
Alligators were, and still are, hunted for a variety of reasons.
Their skin, particularly their belly skin, was a prized commodity for the fashion industry. Able to make high-quality leather, demand for alligator skin soared.
However, alligators were also hunted for food and as a sport. Some people even shot them purely out of fear.
By the 1960’s, the American alligator was close to extinction. However, in 1967, the American alligator was added to the Endangered Species Act, which prohibited illegal killings. Today, their numbers are thought to be in the millions.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Chinese Alligator. Critically endangered, there are thought to be fewer than 120 remaining in the wild.
Although it is illegal to hunt the Chinese alligator, poaching still occurs. However, the main threat this reptile faces is severe habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as the loss of their food source via pesticide and fertilizer contamination.
Depressing thoughts, right?
However, hope is not lost for this species. With no natural predators, it is down to us to protect the remaining population. Breeding programs and reintroduction schemes are already established and are experiencing various degrees of success.
Alligators are an ancient group of animals that have been around for 65 million years.
The two extant species, the American and Chinese alligators, have very few natural predators once adulthood is reached.
However, developing alligator eggs and young juveniles are at risk of predation from a wide range of species. One of the biggest predators of alligators are raccoons.
Wading birds, fish, mammals, and other reptiles also predate on alligators.
However, humans are the biggest threat to existing populations.
Although it is mostly prohibited to hunt and kill alligators, habitat loss and degradation is the leading cause of alligator declines. But, with ongoing conservation efforts, optimism is high. There are hopes that the current population of Chinese alligators can recover, just like the American alligator population.