National Geographic : 1967 Jan
is a song 200 million years old, an echo of the Age of Rep tiles, when cold-blooded creatures ruled the earth. But now the incredible voice is falling silent, and the needless loss will not sit well with our descendants. Two things have happened to accelerate the alligator's decline. One is the recent fantastic rise in the price of hides and resulting increase in illegal hunting. The other is the de struction of habitat by drainage and development projects. Family Gator Comes of Age The plight of alligators, and of people who live in alli gator country, is epitomized by my own family's experiences with the alligator in our pond near Micanopy, Florida. The family alligator is going on ten years old. She meas ures about eight feet, and we have known her since she was two feet long. We have watched her grow up and drive off the other alligators, start catching turtles, and half choke to death on six mallards we had hopefully put on the pond. One day at dawn she made us proud when she bellowed for the first time. Soon another big alligator turned up, and for a while the two of them circled and dashed about, mak ing waves and throwing foam and scaring the gallinules into worried flight. Later we found her nest on the far shore of the pond. Forty-two little gators came out of it. The pond was only eight acres in wet periods, and during every dry spell it shrank. In those times the fauna was con centrated, and the alligator ate furiously. We could hear her cracking turtles from clear up in our living room. Then the pond would flood again and dilute the already reduced remnants of the turtle, bullfrog, and marsh-rabbit populations. The sulphur-bellied frogs that live out in the pond and the big bullfrogs that bellow under the button bushes around the edge became few and quiet. By this time the alligator was so hungry that she broke into the strong cage we had built for a new flock of mallards and ate two of them. Even the little alligators disappeared. My wife charitably suggested that they went away through the woods, but I can't help thinking their mother ate them. So living with our alligator has become a problem. She is still out there in the pond and she is a nuisance-but a very exciting one. In fact, the alligator is a pretty exciting kind of animal. It and its relatives-the crocodiles, the tropical American cay mans, and the Old World gavials-are the only surviving members of the Ruling Reptiles, the main stem of the reptile tree that produced the dinosaurs and the flying pterosaurs. There are two species of alligators: the familiar Alligator mississippiensis, ranging from North Carolina to the Rio Grande and up the Mississippi Valley to Arkansas (map, page 136), and Alligator sinensis, which lives in China, con fined to the inhospitable marshes of the Yangtze Delta. A great many features set the alligator and its relatives apart from other reptiles. One is the spectacular voice. An other is the care the female bestows on the nest and young. Most reptiles are pretty casual about parental obligations; instead of guarding their eggs, they lay them and leave them. I personally fell afoul of the maternal instinct of the alli gator one June day when I blundered into a den pool while On a bold adventure, Dennis and Lydia Coulter open an un guarded alligator nest on their grandfather's ranch near Venus, Florida. Cumbersome gators, using mouth, claws, and body for tools, engineer snug mound shaped hatcheries made of plants and mud. Thirty to sev enty eggs, laid in early summer, hatch nine weeks later. Eight-inch dragons weighing only two ounces squirm free of shells after breaking through with a tiny "egg tooth" atop their snouts. Colleagues held the mother at bay to allow the photographer to make this un usual picture. When ready to emerge in late summer, the babies signal by calling "rumpf, rumpf" while still in the egg. Solicitous moth ers pull away nest material so the infants can escape to the nearest water. Young enter a hostile world as the prey of mammals, large birds, and reptiles, including adult gators. Those that survive three years measure as many feet or more; by then the hunted become the hunters, capturing former enemies in bone-crush ing jaws armed with 80 teeth. No one knows the life expect ancy of an alligator in the wild. Tagging studies may provide answers in years to come. Eager eater, a 14-inch alligator lunches on a crayfish. Other shellfish, insects, small fish, and carrion round out its diet. Gators down any animal they can catch-plus cake and marshmallows offered by sight seers. But the awesome reptiles rarely attack humans unless provoked. Despite voracious appetites, mature gators go without food during winter months, when they emerge from sleep only on warm days. Scien tists suspect that when cold weather slows their metabolism, gators can stay submerged al most indefinitely. In summer they must rise to breathe every few minutes.