Over the past few months, if you are a Florida Resident, you probably heard stories about alligators in swimming pools, on the front porches of homes, or crossing neighborhood streets. They were on the move recently, and for good reason. Late Spring and early Summer were mating seasons and a lot of big boys were searching for mates. Here we are now in November, and baby gators are out and about!
Once the mating game is over and the females are ready to create a nest, these ladies will put a lot of time and effort into doing it right. The nests can be up to 10 feet in diameter and up to 3 feet high. The mounds are made of mud, plants, grass and sticks. In the wild, many females will nest each year in the same location about 70% of the time.
The female will lay about 35 eggs, carefully cover them, and then wait. She will stay close to the nest, guarding against predators like raccoons until the eggs hatch about 65 days later. In the shell, the babies actually form an “egg tooth” at the front of their snout to help them break through the eggshell. This tooth will fall off shortly afterward. They will voice a grunt from inside the nest which alerts the female to start digging and help the young escape the nest.
The temperature inside the nest plays an important part to determine the sex of the hatchlings. Cooler temps between 82 to 86 degrees will produce females while warmer nests between 90 to 93 degrees will end as males. In between those ranges, a mix of males and females will be hatched.
Very carefully, the mom will carry her young, in her mouth, to the water for their first swim. On average, the number of young surviving flooding and predators is about 24 per nest. Of these 24, only about 10 will make it to their first birthday. Of these 10, on average, only 8 will make it to subadult status, which is about 4 feet long. Of these 8, only 5 will reach full maturity, which is about 15% of the original 35 eggs laid. When hatchlings emerge, they are no bigger than a dollar bill.
Taking their first swim, the young are already carnivores, eating insects, shrimp, tadpoles, small fish and frogs. The mother will stay with the young for at least the first year of life and will ferociously protect them against predation, including attacks from male alligators. Crocodile hatchlings, on the other hand, are on their own after just a few days.
Just south of Marco Island, gators of varied sizes can be found. On November 6th, I was at the Big Cypress boardwalk and photographed a 1-2-year-old resting on some rocks. I’ve taken a lot of walks through the Everglades and seen some pretty big gators, but on October 30th, I came across the largest male I have ever seen in the wild. A group of us were pulling a boat up to Hog Key, a barrier island near Faka-Union Bay, and as we approached the shore, a monster emerged from the grassy beach. This guy was 13 to 14 feet long and easily weighed about 800 pounds. I would guess that this big boy was 40-50 years old, if not more. The unique thing about this sighting is that the island is surrounded by saltwater with no freshwater nearby. Alligators are not typically seen in this environment unless they are traveling. This was the largest gator I have ever seen in the wild.
There are approximately 1.25 million gators in the state of Florida, so they are not that difficult to find. Most folks are not aware that there are several thousand crocodiles in Florida as well. South Florida is one of the few areas, if not the only one, where you might find gators and crocs sharing the same habitat. Gators prefer freshwater while crocs like salt. With the many estuaries that we have where fresh and saltwater meet it is possible to find both species not too far away.
There are plenty of national and state parks, preserves and roadside canals where gators can be seen. If you do your homework, there a lot of free locations to see these reptiles, like the Big Cypress boardwalk, just 25 minutes from Marco. While you’re there, look for the eagle’s nest, barred owls, many bird species and you might even see some snakes, or even a bobcat or panther.
Oh yes… and don’t forget to check your swimming pool, front porch, or streets!
Bob is a Naturalist on board the dolphin study vessel Dolphin Explorer. He is also an owner of Wild Florida Ecotours at Port of the Islands, the author of two books, an award-winning columnist for Coastal Breeze News and a regular speaker at area venues. Bob loves his wife very much!