American Alligator Feeding at Black Bayou, Monroe Louisiana. C.Paxton image and copyright

American Alligator Alligator Mississippiensis Feeding at Black Bayou National Wildlife Refuge, Monroe, Louisiana. Cropped image from Panasonic Lumix GX8 with Lumix G Vario 100-300mm zoom. C . Paxton image and copyright.

by C.Paxton for wildopeneye.

When it comes to environmental education there’s nothing like a good book, and the one I’m reading at the moment called American Alligator, Ancient Predator in the Modern World by Kelby Ouchley is superb. Full of interesting facts and anecdotes and good clear images that not only illustrate key points in the text, but also effectively convey the spirit of this iconic key-stone species, I’d say this book is ideal for anyone wanting to become better acquainted with these fascinating creatures.

I like my literature to read easily and above all to clarify my understanding as there’s plenty of mystery in the natural world as it is, and I like Ouchley’s well researched, no-nonsence treatment of these powerful, resilient, amphibious reptiles.   This book conveys their long and distinguished natural history, intriguing biology and ethology, their essential roles as prey, apex predators and ecological engineers, their shorter history of interaction with mankind so far, their recovery from over-exploitation and the relationship between trade and conservation, and the future promise for their role in immunoscience.

To the best ability of the available research this book answers many and varied questions that arise about these apex-predators and keystone species of North America’s southern freshwaters. Interestingly, the book also reaveals areas where our scientific understanding of these creatures can be improved. I thought I knew a lot about them before, but I really didn’t, I learned a huge amount more from this book and revised the many falsehoods that I had believed to be facts.

Admirable qualities – parental care, fisheries maintenance, hydological engineering and a great chomp!

I was at first particularly interested to learn about their biology and behaviours, but the author maintained my interest to the end of the book and I found myself turned from disliking gator farming for fashion accessories to approving of it as I learned of the annual replenishment of the wild stock by the farms and the economic inducement to maintain prime swamp habitat enjoyed by so many other creatures, and people.

There is much to admire about these creatures.

  • They are tender, devoted parents and protect their young long after hatching. It is exciting to come upon youngsters but we don’t hang around them for more than a few pictures because they call out to their mama to come and eat you!
  • They benefit a wide range of wildlife by digging out ‘gator holes that can be up to 50ft wide and deep enough to sustain fish through drought periods, clearing access channels in the swamps and heaping up mud and vegetation to inadvertently provide flood-free nesting habitat for turtles and wading birds!
  • They play an important role in protecting fisheries, yes counter-intuitively, if you want more fish then maintain the alligator population because, as babies they eat crawfish that in turn eat masses of fish eggs and later on they eat the powerful gar fish that take out adult fish.
  • Their curvaceous jaw-line, reminiscent of the more powerful garden loppers looks so much more business-like than the straighter jaws of the crocodile and their bite has been measured as the most forceful in the animal kingdom. A large adult male ‘gator can exert almost three times the force of a hyena’s in terms of psi, and hyenas can chew up light aircraft tyres!

Unsavoury habits

The book doesn’t gloss over what we might consider to be alligators’ bad habits, cannibalism probably being their worst in all honesty, as it seems they eat far more of each other than they do of us, they don’t actually eat many people when you consider the numbers. The book has a lot of interesting historical material and also an interesting section on alligators’ attacks upon humans. It seems you can reduce your chances of adverse experience by:

  • keeping kids and dogs away from their reach, i.e. the waters edge, as their relatively smaller size makes them potential prey for relatively smaller alligators. A six footer might consider tackling a toddler.
  • avoiding splashing, swimming, wading, putting hands or limbs in the water where they eat and when they eat. Late afternoon, evening and night they more often hunt. They hunt more in the warmer times of year as they have to put on weight in order to survive bumation in the cooler months of winter.

    Adult male American Alligator at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. C.Paxton image and copyright.

    Adult male American Alligator at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. C.Paxton image and copyright.

Alligator conservation and threats

The author describes alligators as key indicator species for the ecological health of their home swamps, Mr. Ouchely describes them as “canaries in the coal mine” and presents a good case for their continued conservation as they are a key-stone species in one of America’s richest ecological biomes,  a group of animals upon which the well-being of many other species depend including a good many humans. It comforts me to know that they are protected by law, and by strong economic incentives, with wildlife harvests carefully restricted in order to maintain healthy populations. Read the book for a compelling picture of how commercial trade in alligators for their meat and hides is actually good for this species and their cohabiatant other species in the swamps, rivers and coastal marshes, as the farms are obliged to return the same percentage of adolescents to the wild as would have survived naturally to that age from the selection of eggs, to maintain the wild population. As long as landowners can make money this way, they won’t need to develop the wetlands for other purposes in ways that reduce biodiversity.

The book describes that though some gators are killed by traffic and drown in nets, habitat loss and extreme climate events represent the greatest threats to these amazing creatures. Harsh cold snaps and strong hurricanes can be lethal apparently. While Climate change might eventually extend their living range by a certain degree it actually presents more risks than benefits to alligators, because stronger storms threaten coastal marshes with storm surge and alligators are actually stressed by salt water. Apart from being battered to death, strong hurricanes wreck their habitat, drown nests and also disperse individuals. So climate change and coastal erosion hurt alligators.

Adult bull alligator chasing off a young pretender at Texas's awesome Brazos Bend State Park. C. Paxton image and copyright.

Adult bull alligator chasing off a young pretender at Texas’s awesome Brazos Bend State Park. C. Paxton image and copyright.

Where we’ve seen alligators

As a kayaker, I must confess that I love seeing alligators despite being rather nervous of them. I know that I am not their first choice of food, but I also know that they’d eat me if

Young American Alligator at Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana. C.Paxton image and copyright.

Young American Alligator facing right at Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana. C.Paxton image and copyright.

they could and that knowledge instills a healthy respect for them. The swamp is their kingdom and it is I who am the stranger in it.

An encounter with an alligator of any size elevates an excursion from the pedestrian to the extraordinary. These primordial creatures have survived the dinosaurian extinction and the depredations of the C19th and C20th centuries, kudos to them!

When photographing alligators use your telephoto lens rather than trying to get a close-up, remember that they make their living as ambush predators and their acceleration is remarkable, they can swim very fast and lunge quickly over short distances. On land they can sprint short distances in a straight line.

Where to go in the US to see American Alligators? They occur naturally from coastal parts of North Carolina down through Florida and west to southern Texas. Florida is famous for them, but in terms of numbers, Louisiana takes the crown. Louisiana has the most ‘gators, there are over two million alligators throughout the state and they can live in every naturally occuring fresh water and brackish water body, but they dislike sea water.

We’ve seen them at Black Bayou National Wildlife Refuge, Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, Bayou De Loutre, Corney Creek, Bayou Bartholomew and the Rockefeller State Wildlife Refuge. We braked for a five footer crossing the road on the Creole Nature Trail. That was awe-inspiring!

At Rockefeller State Wildlife Refuge in July we enjoyed over a dozen sightings of young alligators within the first twenty minutes in the brackish canals. Fantastic!

It isn’t essential to be waterborne yourselves to see them. We have had wonderful encounters on river banks, boardwalks and beside ponds.

Southern Texas

Texas is great for alligator watching and for seeing BIG ‘gators! We’ve seen big adults at Brazos Bend State Park and Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge, a pod of babies at San Benardino National Wildlife Refuge and they’re also at Brazzoria and Anhuac National Wildlife Refuges.

Having read this book it is impossible not to respect alligators,  marvel at how perfectly adapted to their watery world they really are and delight at the opportunities that they represent as photographic subjects.

My brother will be getting a copy this Christmas, it will hasten his visit to these parts, I’m sure!

Young adult American Alligator at Trinity River Wildlife Refuge near Dayton, Texas.

Young adult American Alligator at Trinity River Wildlife Refuge near Dayton, Texas.

 

 

 

The author received no financial or other reward for this blog article.