Alligators are impressive animals, and while it might seem like all they do all day is lurk in the dark waters of a river or a pond, or bask under the warm sun, they can be unexpectedly ferocious when attacking prey.
Unlike other animals, alligators don’t stalk their prey, instead, they wait for the prey to come to them, and what do they do next? Well, they drown their prey!
But why do alligators drown their prey?
Alligators will mostly drown larger prey, and they do it to disorient the prey and stop it from escaping. Once the alligator takes hold of the prey they will use the death roll, they’ll swiftly roll, shake and twist the drowning animal to break its bones, to dismember and kill it.
If you’re curious to know more about the hunting tactics of alligators, whether it’s drowning or twisting, and you want to know more about the infamous death roll, then keep on reading!
Why Do Alligators Drown Their Prey?
All animals that prey on other animals have developed their own hunting tactics, so let’s see why alligators use drowning as their tactic!
Reason 1: The Prey Is Large
Alligators are opportunistic eaters which means that they aren’t that picky with their food, unless we’re talking about animals like capybaras or menatees. Juvenile alligators will eat small aquatic animals like fish, amphibians, and bugs and those don’t necessarily need drowning.
Adult and large alligators will also eat fish, but they will also eat turtles, snakes birds, and small mammals like raccoons, but under the right circumstances, they will also attack larger prey like deer and wild boars.
When it comes to larger prey, drowning is the most efficient method. An alligator will camouflage itself by hiding under the water and wait for any animal that will approach the water to drink. By ambushing its prey the alligator gets the upper hand, which makes drowning the most efficient approach.
Reason 2: To Stop Them From Escaping
Being able to camouflage themselves in the water, all alligators have to do is wait for the prey to come to them, once the prey is in a vulnerable position the alligator will capture the animal and use the momentum and their strength to pull the startled animal into the water.
Then the alligator will do something called the death roll, meaning that the alligator will start rolling and pulling the prey further away from the shore and deeper into the water. This tactic keeps the animal from escaping, which means that it will inevitably drown under the force of the alligator.
Once the animal stops struggling the alligator can simply enjoy their meal without worrying about the prey escaping. Patience is the name of the game!
Reason 3: Disorientation Tactic
Alligators lurk in the shallow waters, they blend with the murky surroundings, and even if some parts of them poke out of the water, the scales appear like rocks or a piece of log.
This gives them an element of surprise, but most animals have great instincts for survival so surprising them wouldn’t be enough, that’s when the strong alligator jaws come into play. By gripping their prey and pulling it deeper into the water the alligator will roll in an effort to drown the poor animal.
Other predators might use their speed to wear their prey down, but the alligator is an ambush predator, and they will use their speed to perform quick and sudden motions that are also meant to confuse and disorientate the prey and make their escape almost impossible.
An animal that is disoriented will have a much harder time fighting back and the roll alone will make the animal dizzy, so even if they manage to escape the alligator’s jaws, chances are the alligator might still manage to recapture the disoriented animal and drag it back into the water to drown.
Reason 4: To Kill Their Prey
Alligators are much stronger in the water, of course, they can still kill and eat prey outside of water, but the success rate of capturing and holding on to the prey is much higher when they’re not on land.
That’s why alligators will drown their prey in order to kill it and then consume it in the safest and most comfortable place for them.
It’s worth noting that while alligators will drown their prey they won’t always eat it straight away, instead, they will store any extra food underwater by pinning it under a submerged log. It’s especially helpful if the prey is large since the water helps soften the body. The alligator can return to their stashed food later on when it’s soft or when they’re hungry again.
Why Do Alligators Twist Their Prey?
As already mentioned, alligators don’t just drag their prey into the water and drown it but they use a specific maneuver called the death roll. The alligator will swiftly roll, shake and twist their prey, but why would they do it?
To Break The Bones
Alligators are very capable killers, not only do they ambush their unaware prey, they will capture it, and drag it into the water to drown it and during that process, their goal is to incapacitate their prey and make escaping impossible by breaking its bones.
That’s easy enough to do, especially if the alligator has a good grip on the animal, in which case their incredibly strong jaws will apply 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. Crocodiles for example have an even stronger bite at 3,700 PSI while a human’s bite force on the other hand is only 120-160 PSI.
So, as you can imagine the bite alone is enough to crush the animals, bones, coupled with the violent shaking and twisting, the prey has very little chance of escaping or surviving.
To Dismember The Prey
The alligator bites, drowns, and twists its prey in order to kill it, but the twisting won’t necessarily stop once the animal is dead. Alligators will use this technique to dismember their prey and snap off bits of the meat.
The death roll is also called “twist feeding” and according to one research group that studied the mechanics of the twist feeding “when scaled up to a 3 m alligator, the shear force was calculated at 138 N.”
Additionally “the shear forces generated by the spinning maneuver are predicted to increase disproportionately with alligator size, allowing dismemberment of large prey.”
Crocodiles and possibly alligators will also thrash their prey against rocks and for dismemberment purposes they will wedge the prey between rocks and twist until parts of them come off.
So, you can imagine that it’s far easier for an alligator to capture and eat a large deer.
Do Alligators Do The Death Roll?
Yes, alligators use the death roll, or the twist feeding, to kill their prey. As mentioned above, they use this technique to disorient the prey immobilize it, drown it, break its bones, and dismember it for easier consumption.
We talked about how alligators use the death roll when they’re inside the water, but alligators can also death roll on land. While they can use the death roll on land to capture their prey, they also use it as a defense mechanism against other predators, and to show dominance over other alligators.
When alligators fight each other the death roll becomes more of a wrestling move. Alligators can also use the death roll on land in order to confuse the enemy and escape.
If you’re not sure what this looks like then check out this alligator rolling away from a Florida officer!
Of course, the motion is far more effective in water, but you wouldn’t want to encounter it even if it’s on land.
Aside from alligators, death roll is a technique that is also used by Chinese alligators, crocodiles, gharials, and caimans. In fact among the Crocodylidae family, the Cuvier’s dwarf caiman is the only species that most likely can’t death roll, according to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Do Alligators Attack Humans And Use The Death Roll?
Alligators will see humans as prey and while alligator attacks are rare they can still happen. Alligators would consider humans as large prey so if they were to attack they would definitely use the death roll.
So, How Do Alligators Prefer To Hunt?
As mentioned earlier alligators are opportunistic hunters and ambush predators, so they basically lurk in the water, barely blinking, waiting for some animal big or small to swim or walk nearby. If they detect a prey that is worthy of their attention they will push themselves up out of the water, grab the animal with their strong jaws, and death roll, dragging the prey into the water.
But that’s not the only way alligators hunt, for example, alligators have been observed to trick birds by balancing sticks on their snouts. So, when the birds are in search of twigs to build their nests the alligator will use sticks and twigs to lure birds, thus capturing them and killing them when they’re close enough.
While alligators can be solitary hunters, they’ve also been observed to work in groups. A study showed that a larger crocodile will “repeatedly chase fish towards the shore with powerful splashes of its tail, while smaller, more agile crocs waited in the shallows, ready to snatch the cornered fish.”
In other cases, crocodiles would also “swim in a circle around a shoal of fish, gradually making the circle tighter until the fish were forced into a tight bait ball. Then the crocodiles would take turns cutting across the center of the circle, snatching the fish.”
I know that the two examples are talking about crocodiles, but the study found that alligators are capable of doing the same thing!
There’s no denying that alligators are intimidating creatures, and their hunting tactics are definitely scary. An alligator will lurk in the murky waters waiting for an animal to come close enough so they can grab and pull it into the water to drown.
That’s when the alligator will perform the infamous death roll, and completely incapacitate and disorient the animal. So, if you live in an area inhabited with alligators make sure to keep away from ponds, and try to avoid shores where alligators may wait patiently for their next meal!