Whether you are staring in awe at a prehistoric aquatic predator slipping beneath the water’s surface or cursing under your breath as one strolls its way to the middle of the road and promptly blocks all traffic, there is something fundamentally captivating about the American alligator.
To many, the habits of these enigmatic animals warrant further explanation. What exactly is it that drives these colossal, armored animals to cross roadways or golf courses?
When are alligators most active?
American alligators are most active during their springtime courtship and mating seasons, April through June, that’s when the temperatures are warm between 80° and 90° F, and the ‘wet season’ begins. Alligators will also travel the longest distances and are the most alert during the spring, specifically between dusk and dawn.
Although the above is a great go-to rule for when these large reptiles are most likely to be on the move, there is more complexity behind alligator activity than one might think. Let’s take a deeper dive into the lives of these crocodilians and break down four factors that motivate their movements.
When Are Alligators Most Active?
When people use the word ‘active’ in reference to alligators, they are typically asking, what time of year alligators can be observed traveling distances on land and under what environmental conditions alligators are most energetic or alert.
So, let’s take a look at both!
Factor 1: Changes in Temperature
Like other reptiles, American alligators are ‘ectothermic’ (aka ‘cold blooded’), meaning that they rely on their external environment to regulate their body temperatures instead of their bodies regulating temperature internally through biological processes as humans do.
Alligators are most active in temperatures ranging anywhere between 82° – 92° F. During this time, they will roam in search of a spot to bask in the sun, look for food, or travel from one water source to another within their territory.
When faced with extremes of temperature, alligators have developed behaviors and physiological mechanisms to assist in regulating their body temperatures.
To avoid overheating in the summer months, alligators retreat to deeper water, where temperatures are cooler. It is uncommon to see an alligator basking in direct sunlight for an extended period of time during the summer, although you can see them resting in indirect, mottled light under the shade of tree cover near the water’s edge.
Additionally, alligators will dig a ‘gator hole‘ using their tail, snout, and claws to excavate mud or soil until they have created sufficient space to shelter themselves from extreme heat. These ‘gator holes’ will fill with water, further cooling them down and giving them a source of water in times of drought.
On the other hand, in order to increase their body temperature, American alligators will bask, soaking up sunlight. It is thought that the behavior of basking might be triggered when air temperature exceeds water temperature, prompting alligators to move onto land.
Alligators bask frequently in the springtime, as you can see in the video below!
When temperatures drop to 70 F or below, alligators will generally stop eating, as their metabolism becomes sluggish. During the coldest months of the year, when temperatures drop to 50 F, it becomes too cold for alligators to spend time on land. Instead, they will dig complex burrows near an open water source, where they then seek shelter from freezing temperatures, often with multiple alligators brumating (going into a dormant state) together in one den.
Factor 2: Courtship and Young
It makes sense that an ectothermic animal would be most active during the range of temperatures that are ideal for its body, but there are other factors that affect an alligator’s activity.
Like all wildlife, reproduction is a key motivator in the behavior of alligators. Both male and female American alligators are extremely active during courtship (early April) and mating season (May through June).
Adult male alligators have large territorial ranges and are more likely to inhabit open water, while females and juveniles favor wetlands and smaller waterways. In the spring, males establish a territory where they perform a courtship display. Females travel in response to the presence of prospective mates.
The male’s elaborate courtship display concludes with an impressive bellow as you can see in the video below, and with any luck, his display will attract a female to the territory he has established.
After courtship and mating season, nesting and hatchling season follow (June through September). The paths of male and female dovetail–males do not take part in the incubation or parenting of young.
Gravid females will construct mound-shaped nests out of vegetation, laying and covering their eggs until the chirping cries of hatchlings alert them to uncover the nest again.
The female American alligator is a devoted guardian of her eggs and young. She will stay near the nest to defend it against predators (including humans) and remain in more secluded areas to raise her hatchlings. Only when juveniles are large enough to fend for themselves will they brave open water.
This egg incubation and hatchling season is a less mobile time for females than males, for the reasons stated above, but neither are as active in the summer months as they are in spring.
Factor 3: ‘Wet Season’ Versus ‘Dry Season’
The American alligator’s range spans as far West as parts of Texas and Oklahoma and as far East as Florida and parts of North Carolina. With such a broad geographic range, there are variances between seasonal and regional rainfall. One part of their range may be subject to different weather conditions than another, or a shorter wet season versus a longer wet season.
One thing is certain, no matter where they are, American alligators are aquatic reptiles and natatorial (built for swimming). They need a wet environment. Whether or not they have access to this resource can incline them towards activity or inactivity.
To use the iconic population of American alligators inhabiting Everglades National Park in Florida as an example, the alligators of South Florida benefit from a ‘wet season’ of steady precipitation that starts in April and carries through to September. This lines up with the courtship, mating, nesting, and hatchling seasons of this species.
Furthermore, the Florida rains transform dry land into an expanse of rich wetland habitat. Speaking historically, the hydrology of South Florida starts with the Kissimmee River, which flows South to feed freshwater into Lake Okeechobee. During the rainy season, this massive lake overflows, sending freshwater down through the Everglades and flooding the region, creating rivers and freshwater sloughs, continuing its steady flow South until it meets Florida Bay.
Alligators are extremely active during the wet season, not only because of their reproductive drives but because the presence of suitable habitat increases as a result of the rains.
In contrast, the ‘dry season’ (October through March) produces a lower level of activity from alligators, both because of its lack of suitable water sources and because of it overlapping with the colder months of the year. Again, alligator holes serve a vital purpose to the ecosystem during this time. Alligators focus their efforts on sheltering from the weather and maintaining their access to water during the dry season.
The movements of alligators in this particular Florida range–their relative activity or inactivity–impacts the survival of other species in the area, making the American alligator a ‘keystone species‘ in Everglades National Park. In other words, their activity directly influences the activity of other species.
Similar trends of activity during the wettest months of the year and inactivity during drought can be observed throughout the American alligator’s range. In Eastern Texas, the American alligator population is also most active in spring, which coincides with their rainy season, warm temperatures, and mating season.
Moving up the East Coast to the northernmost part of the American alligator’s range, the trend remains more or less the same, with the spring being their most active time of year.
However, since North Carolina reaches colder temperatures and remains colder for a greater percentage of the year than Texas or Florida, the population of alligators inhabiting North Carolina are active for a shorter amount of time, have a shorter feeding period, and are all-around slower growing than their Southern counterparts.
Factor 4: Resource Availability
Both food availability and the availability of adequate wetland habitat are two resources that can cause American alligators to become more active and travel to previously unvisited areas (like someone’s backyard swimming pool, or pond for example).
American alligators are adaptable, opportunistic animals, which has contributed to their continued survival as a species. Adult alligators will eat fish, snakes, birds, turtles, and small mammals, while juveniles eat amphibians, insects, invertebrates, and small fish. Although their resourceful nature works in their favor, alligators ultimately follow their food.
Native fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals are subject to their own factors that change their activities and behaviors, which influences predators like the alligator that rely on them for food.
These prey species are subject to threats from invasive species that have been introduced into the area, whether that is an introduced species of fish out-competing or predating native fish species or the invasive Burmese pythons in the Everglades decimating the small mammal populations of South Florida.
Habitat loss or land development also affects prey animal numbers, as do factors like pollution and human presence.
The pursuit of food sources can shift alligator populations to venture from their preferred remote habitats to man-made canals, less remote ponds or lakes, busy waterways, human developments (like condominium complexes with ornamental ponds), etc. It can also cause alligators to act more boldly than normal: taking prey that is outside of their normal diet or stealing fish from humans.
Another ‘pressure point’ that determines alligator activity is wetland loss and human development, two factors that are not mutually exclusive, but do have significant overlap with one another.
The Florida Museum of Natural History estimates that over half of the original Everglades has been destroyed due to agricultural development, urbanization, and other industries.
This, too, can push alligators into busier waterways and suburban environments, as the video clearly shows.
Though this fourth factor is the only one out of our list that discusses activity as a reaction to unnatural changes to their environment and food source, this factor is still beholden to the natural physiological requirements of the American alligator. In other words, an alligator cannot defy the fundamentals of its own biology in regard to its temperature and water source requirements, or its reproductive drive.
Prey scarcity will not, for example, make alligators defy their natural brumation behavior in the winter and cannot incentivize them to be active in freezing temperatures. Loss of wetlands will not result in the American alligator developing the same tolerance for saltwater that its crocodile relatives have.
Conversely, the presence of a new housing complex or roadway will not stop alligators from wandering the area during their spring courtship or in traveling from one freshwater spot to another.
In short, unexpected changes to the food supply or habitat during a time of year when alligators are naturally more active will ultimately result in alligators doing what they do best: adapting.
What Time of Day Are Alligators Most Active?
Alligators are most active at dawn and dusk because that’s when they can avoid the sweltering morning temperatures and the complete darkness of the night when visibility is not at its finest.
During springtime, however, alligators can also appear more active throughout the day because the sun is still not unbearably hot and so they usually go out of the water to sunbathe.
What Time of Year Are Alligators Most Active?
Alligators will spend most of the winter being inactive, however, these great reptiles will become extremely active during springtime and early summer. That’s when the courtship and mating season begins, from April to June.
What’s fascinating though, is that alligators don’t just brumate during winter, but they can also go dormant during really hot temperatures that are common during the summer.
Are Alligators Nocturnal or Diurnal?
Most people might consider alligators nocturnal, instead, they fit better into the diurnal category, meaning they are more active at dawn and dusk, and more so at dusk.
That being said, these animals can also be active or sleep during the day and night, this is something that will usually depend on the temperature, for instance, alligators can go out to bask in the sun during the daytime in spring, but these daytime activities usually lessen during the extreme heat of the summer.
As you can see American alligators are the most active and alert both on land and in water during their springtime courtship and mating seasons. Furthermore, they are the most active and alert when temperatures are between 82° to 92° F and the wet season has guaranteed that freshwater sources are plentiful.
That being said, irregular factors like resource scarcity or loss of wetlands can exacerbate alligator activity during their already-active springtime behaviors, when it is most critical for both male and female American alligators to have access to an abundance of resources.
So, next time you see an American alligator ‘high walking’ his way across your path with deliberate, plodding steps, pause to appreciate that you’ve found him during just the right set of conditions to see this behemoth in action.