A Naturalist at Large

Natural History, March 1994

How to Catch a Gator

Or, the Limits of Professional Ecology

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I had the opportunity to conduct ecological research and, at the same time, make what I thought would be a modest personal contribution to environmental preservation. All I needed to do was catch a mother alligator and her young.

The female at Kiawah Island would not come out of the water when we went to catch it.

Photo by Tom Luhring
The management of a South Carolina coastal resort had told me that a large alligator had been pestering golfers, and that they intended to notify the state, which meant the animal could be legally killed as a nuisance. I asked if, instead, we could catch it and remove it to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL) for behavioral study. Both the resort owners and wildlife officials agreed.

But why did we want a large, pesky female alligator at the lab? My research interest in alligators had begun twenty-six years ago when I caught my first one while doing a project on freshwater turtles. Because they are coldblooded, alligators reflect environmental conditions more directly than mammals and birds, whose body temperatures are regulated internally. But crocodilians are linked closely to birds—indeed, they are possibly the avians’ closest living relatives. I wanted to continue investigating the evolutionary and ecological mysteries of these reptiles.

Nest building and protection of the young are distinctive behaviors of the American alligator. All crocodilians lay eggs on land near the fresh to slightly brackish water of coastal marshes, swamps, rivers, and lakes. In early summer, the female alligator builds a large nest—about three and a half feet high and up to seven feet in diameter—of mud and vegetation along the shore and deposits twenty to sixty white eggs before sealing the nest with more mud and vegetation. (The decomposition of the nesting material produces heat, which incubates the eggs at a relatively constant temperature.)

Baby gator eyes reflect yellowish in a flashlight beam.

Photo by David Scott
Because of a powerful protective instinct, however, the mother often remains in the vicinity of the nest until the late summer when the young hatch. Thus anybody inadvertently approaching the nest area may suddenly find an enormous, hissing reptile charging overland. If one stands one’s ground and does not molest the nest or pick up a baby, the mother alligator usually retreats. Or she may not. If the mother hears the babies hatching, she may remove the vegetation and even help the eight-inch-long hatchlings to the water by carrying them in her mouth.

Indeed, this strong parental care in alligators indeed seems more closely allied to birds than to other groups of reptiles. A female turtle, for example, digs a nest, deposits her eggs, and returns to the water, leaving the eggs behind. Prior to egg laying, she stores energy and nutrients in her fatty tissues. These resources are allocated to each egg in the form of a large yolk reserve and provide all of the nourishment needed both for embryonic growth in the egg and for early growth and maintenance of the hatchling turtle.

Some years ago, Justin Congdon, my colleague at SREL, and I discovered that in alligator eggs the proportion of original egg lipids that remained in the hatchling was actually higher than that in turtles. Thus, the newborn alligator entered the aquatic habitat with more fat reserves than any species of turtle we had studied. In capturing the alligator and her babies, I hoped to find out more about alligators and their young.

We searched along the shore and found some of the babies.

Photo by Cris Hagen
This particular mother alligator didn’t intend to be a pest, but people kept hitting little white balls close to the lake where she and her babies lived. She would emerge from the lake, chase the golfers away, and occasionally eat a golf ball. Alligators are known to ingest stones, pine cones, and other nonfood items that are retained in a part of the stomach equivalent to a bird’s gizzard. Such materials may help grind food that is swallowed whole.

One preeminent question a person should ask when wading through swamps and along lake margins in search of North America’s largest reptile is whether alligators attack humans. After all, male American alligators often grow to more than thirteen feet and females to nine feet. This particular six-foot animal was impressive, too; and enough rare and spectacular reports of seemingly unprovoked attacks on humans had made me aware that alligators can be highly dangerous. Plus, this alligator was a mother, and the good behavior record of mother alligators had been tarnished before, especially in situations when maternal instinct overrode a presumably innate fear of humans.

Alligators have a problem faced by a lot of us—you can pick your friends but not your relatives. Not that alligators have many friends, but as one of almost two dozen crocodilian species, they do have some notorious Old World kin. Instances of crocodiles eating humans in Africa and Indonesia mean that New World crocodilians will never be completely above suspicion. Yet American alligators, if unmolested, are shy and peaceful and, based on the evidence, do not consider humans a standard menu item. They unfortunately exemplify how a species can have its natural rights violated because of public misunderstanding.

Baby gators are easy to catch when they are along shore.

Photo by Mike Gibbons
I took two students, Jeff Lovich and Tony Mills, out at night to make the capture. Night is usually the best time to find alligators, both big and small, because of the reflective eyeshine that ranges from red to yellow. This particular September night was absolutely gorgeous, the perfect setting for a Gothic novel. The light from the recently risen full moon was splintered by pine and palmettos and turned the fairway into slivers of white, black, and shades of gray. Scattered ground fog and mist gave the surroundings an eerie appearance, and the only sounds were a distant chorus of green tree frogs and the hooting of a faraway barred owl. We peered ahead searching for the pond where the alligators lived.

With Tony being six four and Jeff six two, I anticipated no problem in handling this six-foot mother alligator. I even brought along my twelve-year-old son Michael to watch the show. When we got to the lake, our flashlights revealed the reflected red eyeshine of a pair of gator eyes. The big, gleaming eyes were surrounded by what seemed like a swarm of fireflies on the water’s surface—two dozen pairs of little yellow eyes, those of the babies.

Our plan: We had a noose attached to a cable on a bamboo pole. When the mother came near shore, we planned to slip the noose over her head and pull it tightly around her neck. We would then put big rubber bands on her snout to keep the mouth closed while we carried her back to the jeep. Her plan: Swim around in the middle of the lake with the babies. And so she did. Our revised plan: Catch one of the babies. Since baby alligators in distress make a distinctive grunting sound, the mother should come close to shore to investigate. When she got close enough, we could snare her with the noose, and that would be it.

Little children do not have an innate fear of gators, even larger ones.

Photo by Mike Gibbons
Most of the babies were with the mother, but a few adventurous ones were in the vegetation along the shore, perhaps foraging for crustaceans and insects. (Alligators more than five feet long will eat any creature inhabiting the land or water that they can catch and swallow, including muskrats, cottonmouths, fish, turtles, raccoons, and waterfowl.) We walked around the edge of the lake and caught one of the babies. It immediately started making the sound of a frightened baby alligator and, to our satisfaction, along came the mother. The two crimson eyes headed straight toward the shore, fast. I handed the baby alligator to Michael; the rest of us hid behind two big pine trees.

As the mother reached the shoreline, Tony got ready to jump down and use the noose. Only she didn’t slow down at the water’s edge. The next thing we knew, she was up on land with a startlingly loud hiss, lumbering toward Michael as fast as her chunky legs could carry her. Her heavy tail swished against the sweet myrtle bushes along the shoreline. The crushed leaves filled the air with a pleasant, perfumy scent incongruous with the charging, hissing reptile.

Michael was holding the baby up in the air and saying, “Dad, Dad, what do you want me to do now?” Being trained professionals, we each offered expert advice. Jeff said, “Climb a tree!” Tony said, “Throw the baby in the lake!” I said, “Run!” Responding to my attempt at parental care, Michael turned and disappeared into the woods, still holding this squeaking toy of an alligator. With a slight head start, a scared twelve-year-old can run a lot faster than an angry alligator, but the mother was still in pursuit.

Left: Most youngsters can be convinced to hold a baby alligator with some encouragement. Right: A youngster has no problem holding a baby alligator.

Photos by Mike Gibbons
She was moving pretty fast when she passed the three of us, but Tony managed to slip the noose over her head, and Jeff and I grabbed the bamboo pole. We braced ourselves, ready for the cable to tighten. But instead of continuing forward, she abruptly reversed her direction, catching the three of us completely by surprise. She turned back toward the lake, dived into the water, and plunged to the bottom.

Unfortunately, we all had good grips on the pole. The three of us were yanked down the slippery bank into the lake. The noose had slipped off, and the thought of being in the water with an irate, unfettered mother alligator impelled us to scramble out almost as fast as we had gone in. Michael emerged from the woods and returned the baby to the water. With some discussion about safer and more successful previous collecting expeditions, we slunk home in defeat.

Catching an alligator should have been no problem for trained professionals from an ecology lab, but this encounter left me with some questions about how well trained we were and whether we should really be classified as professionals. Research ecologists must be reminded occasionally that they do not know everything about animals, plants, and the environment. Alligators have effectively brought this to my attention more than once. They also serve as a strong reminder that biologists still have much to learn about the behavior, ecology, and evolutionary relationships of even the most familiar species.

Whit Gibbons and John Coker demonstrate the preferred technique for removing a seven-foot nuisance alligator in 1975.

Photo by Bill Babb
One of our current questions is whether female American alligators, like birds, directly or indirectly provide food to their young in some situations. This seems like a reasonable extension of their demonstrably complex parental care and was one reason we wanted a mother alligator with recently born young. I still have not observed a mother alligator feeding her young. However, after seeing the intense interest at least one mother had for taking care of her offspring, I feel certain that if parental feeding by alligators does not already exist, evolutionarily it may be only a baby step away.

Updated profile (August 2008): Whit Gibbons is Professor Emeritus, University of Georgia and Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL). He continues to manage the SREL Environmental Outreach and Education Program in which live alligators are frequent participants. He is author of twelve books on herpetology, including the 2005 winner of the National Outdoor Book Award: Snakes of the Southeast, 2005, Whit Gibbons and Michael E. Dorcas, University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA.

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