American alligator. (Arto Hakola/Getty Images)
Alligators have been in the news this week, with the tragic death of a two-year-old boy in Orlando, and the discovery of a 72-year-old man’s body inside another Floridan alligator. But just how dangerous are alligators? And what should you do if you are attacked by one? To learn more about this crocodilian species, Maclean’s spoke with Adam Rosenblatt, a researcher at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, who conducted his PhD research on the topic of American alligators.
Q. With so many alligators in Florida, how worried should people who go there be?
A. My personal precaution—I used to live in Florida—is you should assume every body of water [in the state] except the ocean has alligators in it. You should avoid swimming at night because they’re more active between dusk and dawn than they are in the day. That doesn’t mean you can never go swimming in a lake in Florida. But if I saw a very large alligator [12 to 13 feet] in a lake, I probably wouldn’t go in.
If it’s a two-year-old, that’s about the size of a prey item that an alligator would be interested in. But if it’s an adult, and the alligator is small—an alligator six feet and under, that’s what I consider small – most will not bother you. For my PhD, I had to go swimming in a river where I knew there were alligators … I would just have [my crew] bang on the boat [when they saw an alligator] to notify me to come back. If its head was on the surface and I could keep an eye on it, I wouldn’t be worried about it.
A lot of incidents happen where the person steps on it. That’s not the person’s fault. That’s not the alligator’s fault. It’s just a fact of life. People sort of freak out about it every time it happens. There’s an average of one fatality per year. One is so infinitesimally small. More people are killed each year by their toasters—just getting electrocuted.
Q. In the rare case that an alligator does threaten someone, what’s the best immediate response?
A. You should move away from it as quickly as possible. If the alligator grabs you, either by the arm or the leg or the hand, your best option is, you have to fight back. An alligator is less likely to keep attacking something that is fighting back.
[If it attacks] the best bet is to go straight for the eyes. Their heads are like a rock, so if you’re trying to punch it in the face, you’re not going to hurt it. You have to take your thumb or your finger and jam it into their eye socket. Then you need to get to shore and seek medical attention. Alligator bites are known for becoming infected because their mouths are so full of bacteria. If you’re ever in the jaws of an alligator, you need to go straight for the eyeballs.
Q. How do you think the incident in Orlando will affect the public perception of alligators?
A. The general reaction is over-reaction—“We gotta do something about this alligator problem.” I just hope alligators don’t get persecuted across the ranges. I could understand if Disney World removes alligators from its property, but if that gets extended across the range, that would be overkill.
Q. How does one remove alligators from a property?
A. There are professional alligator trappers in Florida, or the Fish and Wildlife division will be called in to get one out of someone’s pool or something. For my PhD, we captured around 150 alligators. It’s a pretty exciting process if you ever get to participate.
You have a very long pole, 10 or 15 feet long, with a snare on the end. Very slowly, you position the snare over it and trap its head. Its head is too big to get out of the snare. It’ll roll around. It doesn’t hurt the alligator. They tire very quickly because they’re cold-blooded. Someone will usually put a towel—I mean, throw a towel—over their eyes because if they can’t see what’s going on, they’ll usually relax a bit. People will jump on the back and use their forearm to get the jaws shut. That’s the most dangerous part. The goal is to get your knees into the armpits of the alligator so it can’t move. They’ll put them in the back of a truck and drive them to a farm where they’ll be kept for keeping or slaughter. They don’t want nuisance alligators returning to where they came from.
Q. How well can alligators find their way back home?
A. Crocodilians have an amazing homing capacity. The most famous example was in Australia. They picked up two adult saltwater crocodiles with a helicopter and flew them to a new place, 400 km away. The crocodiles were able to make their way along the Australian coastline and get back to the same river they came from. I think they made it in 30 days or a couple months.
Animals have a variety of ways [of finding their way home]. Some use the magnetic field of the Earth, or the stars. Some use the relative light level across the horizon. The way to test is you take an alligator, and you attach a magnet to its head to disrupt its magnetic orientation. [We’re still not sure how they find their way.] I don’t think we’ve actually gotten to the bottom of it yet.
Q. The popular belief is that crocodiles are more aggressive than alligators. What do you think?
A. That’s [only] true for some species. I know some people that study American crocodiles, which share the same habitat as alligators. They say [the crocs] are not as aggressive. However, Nile crocodiles and saltwater crocodiles—those are the two most dangerous species on the planet. They’re thought to hunt humans as prey.
Q. What risks do alligators face?
A. They’re the most vulnerable when they’re born. They’re born about a foot long. Basically everything will eat a one-foot alligator. Raccoons will eat them. Birds will eat them. There’s actually about a 90 per cent mortality rate for alligators within the first year. The fathers are not in the picture, [but] the mothers can be protective. They lay 30 to 60 eggs in a nest. The mothers will help them down into the water because they’re safer. The babies will stick close to the nest for the first two years because the mother is there. Then they gradually disperse as they become bigger and more confident.
When alligators are adults, they basically have no predators. Once they reach seven or eight feet, in America, there’s basically nothing that can take them down. The maximum lifespan in the wild is probably about 40 years old. In captivity, where they’re being fed, they can live for 75, 80 years easy.
Q. How will climate change affect the species?
A. We’re not sure how it’s going to affect them. Alligators have temperature-dependent sex determination. The sex of an alligator is determined in the egg. High temperature and low temperatures produce females; temperatures in the middle produce males. If the temperature goes up, that could skew the gender balance. Then you’re not going to be producing many alligator babies.
There is some human-alligator conflict. Alligators were hunted in huge numbers in early 1900s through the 1960s for the leather trade. Then what happened was they put them on the endangered species list, and they pumped a bunch of money into research of alligators. They were hunted almost to extinction, but there are about one to two million alligators in Florida now. They took them off the endangered species list in 1987. They’re actually a conservation success story. Alligators overall are doing very well.
Q. What something most people don’t know about alligators?
A. Crocodilians have been around for 200 million years, so evolutionarily, they’ve developed as the perfect predator. They lie in wait in water bodies with just their eyes and nose above the water. They’re kind of like ice bergs—you can see about ten per cent of them, and the other 90 per cent is hidden. They’re really good at hiding their true size. They can wait in the same spot for days. Their patience is amazing. They can strike at any moment, which is very impressive for a large predator.
If they catch a small prey item like a fish or a crab, or a rat or raccoon, they will catch it in their jaws and crush it, then swallow it hole. Pound for pound, they have the strongest bite force of any animal measured. They think they have a stronger bite force, pound for pound, than a Tyrannosaurus Rex. If they catch a deer, they will drag it into the water and roll around so it’s disorientated so it will drown to death. It’s called “deathrolling.” It’s very dramatic-sounding.
[Further,] they can change their digestion rates. When they do find a big prey item—when an alligator takes down a deer—it’s beneficial to eat the whole thing quickly. They reroute carbon dioxide into their stomach, which helps them break down the food.
[Also,] alligators actually eat fruit sometimes. Me and my colleagues have found, across 16 species, they eat fruit and plants. We don’t know if its accidentally. It’s a really interesting behaviour—them eating fruit.
Physiologically, they get in fights. They’ll break each other’s arms. They can heal wounds rapidly. They have immune systems that can fend off 10 times as many bacteria as humans, and more types of bacteria. There are researchers who are studying their immune systems to see why they’re so effective and what we can learn from them.
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