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  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.

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

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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.


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 19'2.

 

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 males.

 

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 and population.

 

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.