Discover the American Alligator on Jekyll Island!

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 AlligatorAmerican Alligator in Pond, courtesy Meredith Clark

Gator Tale!

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 fishermens' 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.

But 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 in 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.

Gator Tale!

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.

Alligators 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 WaterAmerican Alligator in Water, courtesy Meredith Clark

Gator Tale!

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, a large dog will eat more than a full-grown alligator.

Lifestyles of the Green and Scaly

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.

Gator Tale!

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.

Humans and the American Alligator

Sometimes, gators and humans cross paths. A young American alligator may try to establish its territory by moving into a pond within a 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.

Rules for Getting Along with Our Scaly Pals

  • Feeding them is a no-no. They'll begin to associate food with humans, and that's a volatile mix. Our diet is also not good for gators.
  • Keep away! American alligators can sprint fast for a short distance. Stay at least sixty feet back.
  • Don't disturb their nests or interfere with their young. Females aggressively protect the little guys. Don't even think about catching a hatchling for a pet. It'll grow up into something that may eat your dog—or you!
  • Keep pets and kids away from gators. They act on instinct when hunting, and may mistake a dog or a small child for natural prey. Don't let kids swim in waters harboring alligators, or play near the edge.
  • Never swim alone in water known to be home to large alligators. Splashing may make a gator think you're prey, and trigger an instinctive attack.
  • Don't back a gator into a corner. Give them their space so they won't feel threatened.
American Alligator Lounging on Bank

American Alligator on Bank, courtesy J. Michael Tracy, Flickr

Gator Tale!

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!

Where You can See the American Alligator on Jekyll Island

Here are places we've seen alligators on Jekyll Island in the past.

  • In the pond behind the Amphitheater. Park in the Amphitheater parking lot, walk through the entrance, and follow the trail around to the back. The pond is right there. Check out the roosting birds while you're there.
  • In just about any golf course pond.
  • In the pond across from Villas on the Sea. There's a drive across the road from the condos, and the pond is back in there.
  • In the small ponds at South Dunes picnic area.
  • There's a small pond next to the Jekyll Island Golf Club clubhouse that used to have a gator and may still have one occasionally. The one we knew of had to be removed as someone working in the kitchen there kept feeding it chicken and scraps. Again, don't feed the alligators!

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.

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