by Kyle Sweet, Superintendent, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist
The American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis, is a well-known inhabitant of Florida and is found all throughout the Southeastern United States. It was once a federally listed Endangered Species but has now recovered to record numbers, although still very much protected. A relative of the alligator, the American Crocodile, is still federally listed as endangered. Over the years, both species have inhabited Sanibel Island.
Alligators are long-lived, living up to 60 years. They can grow to a length of 13 feet but are seldom seen at that length. These cold-blooded reptiles do not have the ability to regulate their body temperature, thus rely on their surrounding environment. To warm themselves, they bask in the sun, which is a much more commonly seen behavior in the “winter” months in south Florida when water temperatures drop. During our warm summer months, water temperatures rise and alligators spend much more time in the water during the day. They are seen less and sometimes considered less present, however populations sustain throughout the year in our area.
The American Alligator has found its way to golf courses and communities all throughout our area. These developed areas create ready-made alligator habitat with large retention areas that are often planted with beneficial aquatic plants and remain with water in them year-round. In addition to alligators, these areas provide suitable habitat for plenty of wildlife that alligators can feed on, such as fish, turtles, wading birds, birds and small mammals. Likewise, it may be difficult for alligators to be thought of as prey but young alligators can be a meal for raccoons, large snakes, wading birds and turtles.
Following an early summer breeding season, female alligators will lay 20-60 eggs in a mounded area next to but out of the water. She closely guards this nest. Following a period of about 65 days, the eggs hatch and the young are often helped to the water by their mother. Often, the mother closely protects the young alligators for up to a year, so it’s very important to realize that when you see young alligators there may be a protective, much larger mother close by.
Alligators must be treated with respect. Alligators cannot be fed. Despite the local $500 fine for feeding an alligator on Sanibel, it’s well known that a “ Fed Gator is a dead Gator “. If fed and an alligator becomes a nuisance by associating a human with food, the alligator will be trapped and destroyed. Beyond the nuisance situation by feeding, interaction with alligators can be dangerous if crouching low near the water’s edge or walking a pet close to the water. In both instances, the alligator with its poor vision, can mistake the person or pet for prey and attack. Always be vigilant around the water and treat any water body in Florida as home to an alligator.
These creatures are the last of the living reptiles that were closely related to dinosaurs and are undoubtedly an awesome presence. Visitors and those of us that have lived alongside them for years must observe from a distance. The future of the alligator is in the hands of those of us that live near them. Long term conservation and management is ongoing and a crucial part of maintaining our island and Florida ecosystem.