Friday, May 22, 2009

No Crocodile Tears Here...

Let me introduce you to two new additions to the Park’s Education Program – American Alligators!

Okay, so they’re not waterfowl – nor even remotely avain in nature, but they are a great tool that our education staff can use to talk about the diversity of wetlands. Native to America, North Carolina is the northern most tip of their range. They are fantastic creatures who are located at the top of the food chain in wetland habitats.

Although they are not crocodiles, they are in the crocodilian family. Only two species of alligators exist in the world, the American alligator and the Chinese alligator, which is much smaller and very endangered. Other crocodilians include crocodiles, caimans, and gharials. However, they all share similar characteristics.

These predatory reptiles are cold-blooded, which means that they cannot control their body temperature the way mammals and birds do. Instead, they rely on their environment to warm or cool them. They are most active in the hot summer months, which isn’t saying a lot, because these cunning animals spend the majority of their time being very still. They use the ambush method to catch their prey, which requires very little movement and a good amount of patience on their part. Since they spend most of their time in the water hunting for food, their body is designed to help them camouflage in their environment. All of the senses that they need to catch a good meal, are located on top of their head – sight, hearing, and smell. This way they can submerge the rest of their body beneath the water keeping it hidden from their alert prey. When a bird or mammal gets close enough…SURPRISE! The alligator quickly snaps it up into its wide mouth and gobbles it down whole. If the prey happens to be too large to swallow, the alligator is equipped with about 80 teeth and incredible jaw strength to tear it into bite-sized pieces.

They also eat a lot of fish and turtles, so to aid them in their underwater dining, crocodilians have three eyelids – one on the bottom and one on top (like us,) but they also have a third one underneath these and it is clear. Called a nictitating membrane, this third eyelid is clear and allows the alligator to see underwater while protecting its eye from debris and such.

While a mother alligator is one of the fiercest animals on the planet, she is also one of the most gentle. Before laying her clutch of 30 to 50 eggs, the female carefully makes a nest of soil and rotting vegetation. Heat from the decomposing matter incubates the eggs for 60 to 70 days and the sex ratio depends on the temperature inside the nest. Eggs incubated at higher temperatures will turn into male alligators, while cooler temps produce females.
The mother will guard their nest until the babies begin to hatch. When she hears her babies making "chucking" sounds and digging their way to the surface, she will help dig up the eggs. If any are having trouble hatching, the female will carefully take the egg into her mouth and carefully break open the egg without harming the baby inside. Once the babies have hatched, she will take them into her mouth or onto her back and carry them down to the water. Many hatchlings will stay with their mother for up to a year for protection from larger predators.

To learn more about these fantastic creatures, call the Park and register for any of our summer camps, education or family programs to meet our scaly friends….

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