When my wife and I visited southern Florida last April one of our priorities was to see American alligators (Crocodylia: Alligatoridae: Alligator mississippiensis) in the wild. Our first stop was along the Anhinga Trail at Everglades National Park, and here we found over two dozen in under an hour.
At first they were all juveniles, mostly two to three feet long, displaying their characteristic yellow stripes. Farther along the trail, however, there were more mature animals. Some of these were perhaps six to eight feet in length.
In some places they were floating right below the boardwalks that went over the waterways:
The largest alligator we saw, however, wasn’t in the Everglades. We spotted it along Canal Drive east of Homestead when we were heading to Biscayne National Park. This individual was basking in the early morning sun on the far side of the canal, and appeared to be at least ten feet in length:
Although this particular stretch of canal was lined with orchards and tree nurseries, in nearby areas the canals flowed right through residential neighborhoods. I found it surprising that alligators live in such close proximity to people in southern Florida, but that explains the occasional news story about a pet being eaten or a person attacked.
Throughout their range from North Carolina to Texas, alligators are the apex predators. They’re opportunists that will feed on anything they can catch including fish, birds, and mammals. Mature alligators can grab prey as large as deer or humans. In the last fifty years Florida has averaged five unprovoked attacks on people per year and 22 total deaths.
Although overhunting placed these impressive reptiles on the endangered species list in the 1970s, conservation efforts have resulted in them now thriving throughout their range.
Alligators have again become threatened, this time by the proliferation of Burmese pythons (Squamata: Pythonidae: Python molurus). Introduced from southeast Asia as released pets, these huge snakes have flourished in southern Florida’s subtropical climate. Pythons have disrupted the local ecology by decimating native species. They consume much of the same prey as alligators, and in some cases consume alligators themselves (although they sometimes bite off more than they can chew). Efforts have been underway to control and perhaps eliminate these destructive exotic snakes and restore the natural order of the local ecosystem.