“…Great serpents with feet,” mouths “large enough to swallow a man whole…with great teeth…so fierce looking and so ugly that every man and beast must stand in fear and trembling of them.”
Marco Polo was the first European to describe an alligator. It was the end of the 13th Century in the Yangtze River Valley, China. Even today, alligators in the wild are only found in China and the U.S. Some of those are found in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, the northern terminus of the American alligator’s range.
I was paddling Milltail Creek in the Alligator River NWR in the middle of winter. I didn’t expect to see an alligator in the refuge but I like to know the natural history of the places I paddle and the things that live there, especially things as formidable as an alligator.
They’re timid creatures mostly and rightfully wary of humans but they are formidable. They have 80 teeth in their mouth and grow new ones to replace worn ones. In a lifetime, a mature alligator may grow 2,000 to 3,000 teeth. And those teeth are set in a jaw that can crush a turtle’s shell.
The sky and skyline reflected in the still water of Milltail Creek.
The Terror Crocodile
Alligators are the last of the living reptiles closely related to dinosaurs. Crocodilian fossils (both alligators and crocodiles belong to the order Crocodilia) have been found dating back 230 million years. Deinosuchus (translated from the Latin it means terror crocodile) lived 82 to 73 million years ago. Closely related to modern alligators, they reached a length of about 36-feet and an estimated weight of 6 tons. Fortunately, alligators only grow to about 12-feet in the Alligator River and it takes them longer to reach that length than further south.
That’s not to say some big ‘gators don’t live in the Alligator River. A 12-foot, 635-pound alligator was killed in a collision with a minivan on Highway 64 near Manns Harbor on the edge of the Alligator River refuge. The minivan limped away. It required a backhoe to move the alligator.
Milltail Creek, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
An Efficient Predator
You don’t survive 230 million years without being good at it. Alligators are ecthothermic—cold blooded—and depend upon environmental sources to control the temperature of their body. That might seem a weakness, but it allows them to spend much less energy regulating their body temperature than a mammal.
They’re able to store about 60% of the energy obtained from their food as fat in their abdomen, back and tail. They don’t hibernate but their stored fat is enough to get them through the winter months when they become lethargic and their appetite decreases with the cold.
And they efficiently consume what they eat, digesting bones, fish scales, turtle shells, and feathers. Large individuals can go as much as two years between meals but even large individuals can live on small fish (70% of their diet for some), insects, shellfish, reptiles, and birds.
Alligators sneak up beneath floating birds and pluck them from the surface like low hanging fruit, but they can vault from the water as high as five feet, snagging birds from branches and even in flight. That bit of information gave me pause, paddling alone on Milltail Creek—alligators leaping from the water! It was the sort of image that would scar a child for life.
The upper reaches of Milltail Creek. Alligators and moonshiners once cohabited the creek.