American alligators once faced extinction. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service
placed them on the endangered species list in 1967. Fortunately, the legal protection
worked. Just 20 years later, American alligators were taken off the list.
The American alligator is one of few success stories of an endangered animal not only saved from
extinction but now thriving in the wild. The combination of state and federal protections, habitat
preservation efforts, and reduced demand for alligator products have improved the species' wild population which now is above
one million and rapidly growing. One look at these menacing predators—with their armored, lizard-like
bodies, muscular tails, and powerful jaws—and it is obvious they are envoys from the distant past.
The species, scientists say, is more than 150 million years old, managing to avoid extinction
65 million years ago when their prehistoric contemporaries, the dinosaurs, died off. American alligators
reside nearly exclusively in the freshwater rivers, lakes, swamps, and marshes of the southeastern
United States, primarily Florida and Louisiana.
Heavy and ungainly out of water, these reptiles are
supremely well adapted swimmers. Males average 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.6 meters) in length and can
weigh 1,000 pounds (453 kg). Females grow to a maximum of about 9.8 feet (3 meters.) Hatchlings
are 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 centimeters) long with yellow and black stripes. Juveniles, which ar
e on the menu for dozens of predators, including birds, raccoons, bobcats, and even other alligators,
sually stay with their mothers for about two years. An alligator can live up to 30 to 50 years.
Adult alligators are top predators critical to the biodiversity of their habitat.
They feed mainly on fish, turtles, snakes, and small mammals. However, they are
opportunists, and a hungry gator will eat just about anything, including carrion,
pets and, in rare instances, humans.