The American Alligator Adds Spice to Jekyll Island Experience
It never fails to send a thrill down my spine. There, out in the center of the pond, barely discernible - two reptilian eyes, staring at me, unblinking, from the dark water.
Those two eyes belong to an American alligator - Alligator mississippiensis, to be exact. The term "alligator" comes from the Spanish "el lagarto", and means "the lizard". Larger than its cousin the Chinese alligator, our native gators call the southeast home. And that includes Jekyll Island.
Like the whitetail deer, these reptiles have adapted well to living in
close proximity to humans and development. Formally on the endangered
species list, the alligator is now listed as "Least Concern" on the
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It thrives throughout its
southeastern habitat— Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana,
Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and
Texas—with an estimated population of over one million, and was
officially declared no longer endangered in 1987.
American Alligator in Pond, courtesy Meredith Freeland
When kids become young adults, they have a way of casually telling their parents about things they did as youngsters that will curl your hair.
My son Scott told me that on one trip to Jekyll Island, he and a friend tied a piece of chicken to a rope and played tug-of-war with the big alligator living in the pond off the bike trial that runs from Ben Fortson Parkway to the Millionaire's Village. I assumed that since they still lived that they won…
On Jekyll Island, you're likely to encounter the American alligator in marshes, coastal rivers and small ponds. They can live in brackish water for short periods. I've seen Jekyll Island gators body surfing between the inlet of Clam Creek and the Jekyll Island fishing pier, patiently waiting to steal fishermen's catches.
They can't handle salt water for long, though. American alligators have no salt-secreting glands, unlike their other not-so-distant relative, the American crocodile. Crocs aren't their only kin. Alligators are closely related to dinosaurs, and have changed little in 180 million years. But their closest living relatives nowadays are birds.
Alligators may be crocodile cousins, but there are discernible
differences. Gators have rounded snouts; crocs sport long, pointed
snouts. Crocodiles live only sub-tropic and tropical habitats; gators
have adapted to climates a bit cooler. The only place you'll find
crocodiles in the U.S. is southern Florida.
The American alligator loves the water, however. When it gets too dry, they'll use their snouts to shovel out an alligator hole, a depressed area where water will stand throughout the driest season.
One day Martha and I walked down a short, sandy trail to the pond behind the Amphitheater, looking for birds. We spent about 10 minutes there.
When we came out we were greeted by the unmistakable imprint in the sand of a large, heavy gator which had evidently left the woods on one side, crossed the sandy trail (leaving tracks and a tail swoosh), and disappeared into the woods on the other side.
deserve our respect. They're an integral part of a healthy, thriving
ecosystem, performing the job of regulating prey species populations and
shaping habitats. When drought times come, gator holes may be the only
source of water not only for the American alligator but for other animal
and plant species living nearby.
If drought gets too bad and even the American alligator holes dry up, alligators will set out on an overland exodus, looking for a wet haven. If you're staying in a Jekyll Island rental with a pool, better check it out before blithely diving in. Alligators have been known to claim swimming pools as their own!
Gators are "ectothermic" animals, which means cold-blooded. They can't regulate their body temperatures. Instead, they match the temperature of their surroundings. On Jekyll Island in cooler weather, you might see alligators sun-bathing on the banks of ponds. When it gets too hot, they head for water, or bask with their mouths open to vent heat.
Even though it's cold blooded, the American gator can live in areas where the winters aren't too cold. How? By digging a burrow, where it hunkers down till the weather warms up. It doesn't really hibernate, but cold temps lowers its metabolism. During this period, the American alligator won't eat. It lives off stored energy. Like a bear, a gator may leave its burrow
during warm spells.
American Alligator in Water, courtesy Meredith Freeland
When I was younger, I did some survey work on Kiawah Island. I was with a senior engineer and we were looking at a large golf course pond with the island's development manager. He told us, "A giant gator lives in that pond. We call him Bubba. I'd like to show him to you, but he doesn't appear to be in sight."
A few minutes later, the engineer walked down a slope to the waters edge to look into the culvert running under the road. We saw him jump back and retreat hastily up the hill, eyes wide and face white. He looked at us and said, "I think I found Bubba. He's in the pipe."
Gators can actually live in the water through a sharp freeze by sinking
until only their nostrils show above the surface. This "icing response"
protects the reptile even if the surface freezes and traps it in the ice.
One advantage of being ectothermic is that an American alligator won't have to eat as much. Over a year, large dog will eat more than a full-grown alligator.
A female American alligator can breed when she reaches 6 feet and around 10 years old. As the weather warms in the spring, so does the alligator's ardor. Both male and female reptiles show
interest using sound, scent, and visual attractors such as bellowing, slapping their heads on the water, blowing bubbles, and secreting pheromones. Their mating rituals include mutual
rubbing of snouts and backs.
As spring melds into summer, the mated pair builds a mound nest from fresh mud and plants. They construct their nests out of the flood zone. Nests are about 3.5 feet high and 7 feet
wide. Inside this nest, the female lays around 20 to 50 eggs, and covers them with vegetation. Eggs incubate for about 68 days, protected during this time by their mother.
I was holding a survey rod on a
dirt road where it crossed a tidal creek. The creek had backed up and
formed a catchment pond on the upstream side. An old black gentleman was
sitting there on an
overturned milk carton, fishing. In the water, an alligator floated
patiently. I watched as the old fella got a bite, and the gator swam in
and deftly took the fish off his hook.
The old man patiently re-baited the hook, threw out the line, and the scenario repeated itself. I finally asked him, "Having any luck?" He looked at me and smiled. "Well, suh," he drawled, "I ain't having no luck whatsoever. But Mister Gator, he's having him a fine day!"
Temperature dictates whether the brood will be male or female. Temps
ranging from 90º to 93º means the baby alligators will all be males.
Females result at temperatures ranging from
82º to 86º. Ranges between 86º and 90º result in a mixed-sex brood.
As the baby gators hatch, they call to their mom with high-pitched chirps. Mom scratches away the vegetation and carries her young to the water in her mouth.
Young gators stick together for awhile. Mom hangs around, too, offering protection, maybe as long as a year or more. This is good, as hatchlings and juveniles are prey to fish, birds,
raccoons and other gators. Hatchlings can grow up to 8" in a year.
Sometimes, gators and humans cross paths. A young American alligator my try to establish its territory by moving into a pond within an housing development, with close proximity to people. Sometimes, these reptiles can become nuisance animals.
Trying to control an alligator by moving it to another, distant habitat has been found to be ineffective, as relocated alligators have been known to travel over 100 miles to return to their home.
Although alligators are no longer endangered and have adapted well to environmental changes, they can still run into trouble. Increasingly, gators and humans are crossing paths due to situations such as expanding development in alligator habitat and gators taking up residence in golf course ponds. As it's unfeasible to relocate a gator, nuisance animals are usually harvested. Pollutants like mercury, fertilizers and pharmaceuticals also may adversely affect the species.
Kiawah Island is a South Carolina resort barrier island. It attracts a lot of retirees, snowbirds, and wealthy vacationers who live or stay in houses built right on the canals and ponds.
These folks also like to bring their little dogs and cats along with them. You could walk into the member's clubhouse and see sign after sign posted on the bulletin board:
"Have you seen our darling
Foofoo?"; "Missing - white Persian cat."; "Be on the lookout for Rufus,
our Jack Russell terrier." And on it went. In Kiawah and other resort
areas, up and down the eastern coast, alligators eat good!
Here are places we've seen alligators on Jekyll Island in the past.
On your next trip to Jekyll Island, be on the lookout. There's a great chance you'll see your own alligator, and it's an experience not to be missed.