Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Sadness of a Female Gator

STEPPING STONES


Clinton, an adult female alligator, can be identified by the divot just above her right eye.

Clinton, an adult female alligator, can be identified by the divot just above her right eye.

“Look! I see them! Over by the sawgrass and the cattails! There’s about 20 of ‘em!” This has been a familiar exclamation in the fall around the Big Cypress boardwalk.

For several years, one particular female alligator has had as many as 30 hatchlings in the same location. About 10 inches long, these youngsters are a thrill to watch. Unfortunately, there were none to see this past season.

Record summer rainfall and Hurricane Irma caused the canal waters to rise to levels not seen in a long, long time. The incubation process was interrupted and there were no new hatchlings in 2017. Mom went through a lot of work and nothing to show for it.

The author’s favorite adult female popped up in a canal to take a look around recently.

The author’s favorite adult female popped up in a canal to take a look around recently.

Prior to laying their eggs, female gators will construct a nest made of decaying leaves, debris and soil. This nest is usually in a secluded area and built above the high water mark. Dad is nowhere to be found. He is only around for courtship and mating.

Courtship begins in May or June and the female will deposit from 32 to 46 eggs in her nest in July. She will cover these eggs and wait nearby while the warmth from the earth and the sun performs its incubation magic. Approximately 65 days later the eggs will hatch. After birth gators have 80 teeth. Prior to birth they have 81. The extra tooth is there for one specific reason…to slice through the egg casing and expedite the hatching process. It is called an “egg tooth” and it falls off soon after they are away from the nest.

Now about 16 months old, this is one of Clinton’s surviving young from a 2016 nest.

Now about 16 months old, this is one of Clinton’s surviving young from a 2016 nest.

One particular female has been successful in hatching young in 2014, 2015 and 2016. I’ve been watching her for several years and witnessed some of her young grow up. Her name is Clinton and she is identified by a divot above her right eye (she is not named after a recent presidential candidate). This past fall there was some behavior that I had never seen before from her.

 

 

It’s a well known fact that males and females will “bellow” or call to one other during mating season. These sounds from Clinton, however, were unlike the mating calls heard in the past and seemed distressed. Furthermore, the sounds were made in the fall. Also the sounds came about the same time that the eggs should have hatched.

When youngsters are ready to emerge from the eggs they will grunt to attract mom’s attention. She will then come to the nest and carry the hatchlings to water. Is it possible that Clinton was grunting in an effort to vibrate the eggs in order to begin their lives? Was she distressed by the fact that her young had not yet come out of their shells?

I have not been able to obtain specific information regarding this behavior, and we all tend to give animals a human trait to understand them better. The fact is, this strange bellowing was heard on several occasions over a two-week period. It is something that I had not experienced ever before.

So, Clinton, are you actually grieving for your young? Are you in mourning? Or has instinct given you a mechanism to try and stimulate those eggs one last time before the life cycle continues? Only you know the answer, my lady.

For nests that survive predators and flooding, an estimated two-dozen hatchlings will emerge. Only ten of these will make it to their first birthday and only five of the original 40-plus eggs will reach maturity. Such is the cycle of life.

But it sure is a treat to see these babies each fall, with the exception of this past year. I can’t wait for an exited guest to yell out next fall “Look! I see them!”

Bob is the owner of Stepping Stone Ecotours, conducting walking tours in the western Everglades, less than 30 minutes from Marco Island. He is also the author of two pictorial books, “Beyond The Mangrove Trees” and “Beneath The Emerald Waves,” available at local outlets or at his website: steppingstoneecotours.com. Bob loves his wife very much!

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