Can alligators be found in North Carolina?

May 1997

Yes! The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) lives primarily in rivers and wetlands in the southeastern part of the state; however, it can also be found as far north as the Albemarle Sound. Coastal North Carolina is the
northernmost range for this ancient reptile. Because of poaching and loss of habitat, the alligator was once threatened with extinction but has survived in the remote areas of our coastal region.

American alligators, the largest reptiles in North America, can only be found in the southeastern United States.

American alligators, the largest reptiles in North America, can only be found in the southeastern United States.

Remnants of a prehistoric era, alligators have remained virtually unchanged for more than 100 million years. They are among the last surviving members of the super order Archosauria, which included most dinosaurs.

Alligators are characterized by short, blunt, rounded snouts, as opposed to crocodiles with long, tapered snouts. In North Carolina, alligators can measure more than 13 feet and weigh more than 600 pounds; however, averages usually range from 8-12 feet and 300-500 pounds. The largest alligator found in the state was in Carteret County in 1981 and measured more than 12½ feet. The largest documented alligator ever found was in Louisiana, measuring more than 19 feet.

How do alligators get so big? They can and do eat almost anything. Their stomachs are the most acidic of any vertebrate, and sticks, stones, bricks and even aluminum cans have been found in the stomachs of mature alligators.

Alligators are carnivores and primarily feed at night. Young alligators eat insects, snails, frogs and small fish. As they mature, they begin to feed on turtles, snakes, small mammals and even small alligators. Their 80-plus teeth are conical shaped and designed for grabbing and holding. To feed they swallow food whole on in large chunks. Large prey is held underwater until it drowns, turtles are crushed, and birds are plucked from branches – sometimes even from the air by alligators that can vault vertically out of the water to heights of five feet or more.

Sexual maturity is determined by size – usually considered  6 feet or more. Depending on environmental factors, wild alligators can reach this length in 10-12 years. In North Carolina, growth-rate studies suggest it takes 16-20 years; in warmer climates only 8-9 years.

Mature alligators breed and nest in warm months, seeking open waters of coastal marshes, lakes and streams during April and May. After mating females move into dense marsh or swamp areas and build large nest areas of mud and vegetation, where they lay 40-60 eggs. Nest temperatures are critical during early incubation. Temperature also determines the sex of the young. Temperatures below 85 degrees can produce all females, and temperatures above 91 degrees can produce all males.

After about two months, the 7- to 9-inch hatchlings emerge and are carried to the water in the mouth of the mother. They remain in groups, at least through their first winter, and may stay in the vicinity for the next two to three years. The first two years are critical. Eighty percent or more may fall victim to wading birds, raccoons, bobcats, snakes and even larger alligators.

As winter approaches, alligators move to dens or deep alligator holes in the marsh. They don’t hibernate in the true sense, but do undergo dormant periods. Alligators excavate a cave in the bank of a waterway and enlarge the inner chamber so a portion of it is above the water level. This allows them to surface occasionally to breathe.

Biologists estimate that several thousand alligators inhabit North Carolina’s coastal waters. As a protected species, it is  illegal to hunt, trap or harass alligators. This legislation has helped alligators recover from near extinction, however, poaching and loss of habitat remain threats.