What is an Alligator?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An alligator is a carnivorous reptile in the family Alligatoridae, a branch of the crocodilian order, Crocodilia. There are two living species of alligator today, found in North America and China, with the Chinese Alligator being considered critically endangered. These crocodilians have an infamous reputation, thanks to their ability to take down prey much larger than themselves, and their tendency to be territorial and very aggressive.

A crocodile, which is related to an alligator.
A crocodile, which is related to an alligator.

Both the American and Chinese Alligator have a number of traits in common. They have sturdy, muscular bodies with long, blunt snouts lined with a formidable array of teeth. These reptiles use their long tails for balance, gripping prey with their teeth and then throwing their prey off-balance in a maneuver known as the “death roll.” Unlike their closely related cousins, the true crocodiles, alligators lack protruding lower teeth, so when their jaws are closed, no teeth are visible.

Alligator meat.
Alligator meat.

Of course, if you get close enough to an alligator to discover it's not a crocodile, it may be too late. Alligators are very aggressive carnivores, and they are confident eating a range of foods, from fish to oxen. Their thick, scaly skin protects them from any potential predators, and their sharp hearing ensures that they can hear prey from quite a distance.

Alligators prefer to live close to water, periodically beaching themselves to bask in the sun. They communicate with coughs, growls, and other vocalizations, with small alligators living in groups, while larger adult alligators live alone. Female alligators are usually responsible for raising the young; they supervise the eggs while they incubate, and teach the baby alligators how to navigate the world.

The name “alligator” comes from the Spanish el legarto, “the lizard.” American Alligators are formally known as Alligator mississippiensis, while Chinese Alligators go by A. sinensis. Both species have historically been hunted for their skin, a valuable source of leather for luxury items, along with their dense, lean flesh. In China, hunting and habitat constrictions have proved to be a serious problem for Chinese Alligators.

The American Alligator has become famous in the American South, where these creatures were once widely distributed. American Alligators actually play a very active role in the wetlands they inhabit, by creating large depressions in the banks known as gator holes. These holes collect freshwater, creating a habitat and source of water for other animals in the wetlands.

Alligators can sometimes kill and eat oxen.
Alligators can sometimes kill and eat oxen.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon284688

Alligators are not aggressive. They are very shy and scared of people. Crocodiles are the aggressive ones reaching lengths of 28 feet or more. Alligators usually only measure between 5 and 9 feet long. Crocs have a bite force of 3 tonnes per sq.in but a gator's bite force is only 900 kilos.

redhill

Alligators are well-known for their carnivorous habits, but I didn't know how helpful their gator holes are. Interesting to think that such a "mean" creature helps wetland creatures so much simply by helping itself. I wonder if they have gained any amount of knowledge that the other animals benefit from these holes, and they now rely on being able to trap them during the dry season.

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