||Can Alligators Be
Found in North Carolina?
28 May 1997
|Yes! The American alligator,
Alligator mississippiensis, resides primarily
in the rivers and wetlands in the southeastern region
of the state, but can also be found as far north as
the Albemarle Sound. Coastal North Carolina is the
northern most range for the American Alligator. Once
threatened with extinction due to poaching and loss
of habitat, the alligator has survived in the more
remote areas of our coastal region.
alligators, the largest reptiles in North America,
can only be found in the southeastern United States.
American alligator, Alligator
mississippiensis, resides primarily in the rivers
and wetlands in the southeastern region of the state,
but can also be found as far north as the Albemarle
Sound. Coastal North Carolina is the northern most
range for the American Alligator.
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 Archosauria,
the Super Order which included most dinosaurs. Alligators
are characterized by short, blunt, rounded snouts as opposed
to crocodiles which have long, tapered snouts. They are
capable of reaching lengths over 13 feet and weights over
600 pounds, however, typical ranges are 8-12 feet and 300-500
pounds. The largest alligator found in North Carolina was
in Carteret County in 1981 and measured 12'7. The largest
gator found in the United States was in Louisiana and measured
So how do alligators get so big? Alligators can and do
eat just about anything because their stomachs are the most
acidic of any vertebrate. Sticks, stones, bricks, and even
aluminum cans have been found in the stomachs of mature
alligators. They are carnivores that primarily feed at night.
Young alligators feed on insects, snails, frogs and small
fish. As they mature, they begin to eat fish, turtles, snakes,
small mammals and even small alligators. They swallow their
food whole; their teeth (80+/-) are conical shaped and made
for grabbing and holding, not cutting. Alligators grip their
prey in their muzzles; large animals are held underwater
until they drown, turtles are crushed in their shells, and
birds are plucked from branches and sometimes even from
the air by alligators that can vault vertically out of the
water to heights of five feet or more.
The size of an alligator, more so than age, determines
sexual maturity.An alligator is considered sexually mature
when it reaches six feet or more. Depending on environmental
factors, a wild alligator may attain this length in 10-12
years. Growth rate studies in North Carolina suggest that
it takes 16-20 years for an alligator to reach six feet
in length; in warmer climates it takes 8-9 years. Since
it takes longer for alligators to reach maturity in North
Carolina, more are lost to predators and other natural mortality
before they are able to breed.
Mature alligators restrict their breeding and nesting activities
to the warm summer months. They seek the open waters of
coastal marshes, lakes, and streams during April and May,
the courtship and breeding season. After mating, females
move into dense marsh or swamp areas to build their nests.
They construct mounded nests of mud and vegetation that
are about 2 1/2 feet high by 6 feet in diameter where they
lay 40-60 eggs. Nest temperatures are critical during the
first half of incubation and also determine the sex of the
young alligators. Temperatures less than 86 degrees produce
only females, temperatures above 90 degrees produce only
After a two month incubation period, the eggs begin to
hatch and young alligators emerge, 7 - 9 inches in length.
Hatchlings remain in groups called "pods" at least
through their first winter and may stay in the vicinity
of the nest for the next two to three years. The first two
years are the most critical in the life of an alligator
- 80% or more may fall victim to wading birds, raccoons,
bobcats, snakes, even larger alligators.
As the cold weather of winter approaches, alligators move
to dens or deep alligator holes in the marsh. Although they
do not hibernate in the true sense, they do undergo periods
of dormancy in cold weather. They excavate a cave in the
bank of a waterway and enlarge the inner chamber so a portion
of it is above the water level, allowing them to surface
occasionally to breathe. The cold weather that drives alligators
to their dens in the winter certainly limits their growth
in North Carolina, thus indirectly affecting their reproduction
While exact figures are not available, biologists estimate
that several thousand alligators inhabit North Carolina's
coastal waters. Alligators in North Carolina are protected
by law, making it illegal to hunt, trap or injure them.
This legislation has helped the species recover from near
extinction, however, poaching and loss of habitat continue
to threaten their existence. Should you ever encounter an
alligator in our state, be sure to observe the great creature
from a safe distance.