A Stroll Down Alligator Alley

June 9, 2015

He holds the world record for bite strength among his peers with a bite force of 2,982 lbs. He is in his mid thirties. He weighs over eight hundred pounds and is thirteen feet, 6 inches long. The “He” we are referring to is Captain Crunch, and he lives at Alligator Alley in Summerdale, Alabama. Thanks to Marine Science Adventures and Dr. John Simpson, we were introduced to Captain Crunch and his friends, as a part of our Marine Science Adventures Field Trip.

Alligator Alley is home not only to Captain Crunch, but to more than 450 of his closest friends, ranging in age from hatchlings to mature adults! Joseph, a Wildlife Biologist and our guide through the swamp (on an elevated boardwalk, of course!), pointed out how the alligators spend their days relaxing, sunbathing, courting and nesting in their own natural habitat. Seeing the alligators up-close, we were able to ask Joseph numerous questions about their habitat and physical characteristics.

A Walk on the Wild Side.

Our visit to Alligator Alley proved to be an exciting end to our Marine Science Adventures Field Trip. Taking us into the natural habitat of alligators, we got to see them as they would live in the wild, plus we got an opportunity to hold and examine a small alligator up close. Ranging in size from about a foot to well over 13 feet, the 450+ alligators living at Alligator Alley are well cared for and seem to like the attention they get—especially during feeding time!

On our tour, Joseph informed us that an alligator’s growth rate varies by age, habitat and gender. They can grow anywhere from 2 to 12 inches per year with males growing faster and larger than females. Females will max out around 9 to 10 feet long while males can max out around 14 feet long. Regardless of gender, alligators will live about 50 years in the wild. Captive alligators, like the ones at Alligator Alley, have been reported to have longer life spans, but on average, the life span is 50 years. According to Joseph, there are some physical characteristics professionals look at to guess an alligator’s age, but the only way to accurately determine its age is by counting growth rings in the femur after it dies. This is done in the same way as determining a tree’s age when counting the rings.

Some of the physical characteristics Joseph shared with us about alligators were the eyes, the muscles that alligators get their “chomping” power from, and the knobs up and down the back. Alligators have nictitating membranes, or “third eyes”, which are clear lenses that cover the eyes allowing them to see while providing a level of protection when going after prey. The pterygoid muscles are an alligator’s large jowls that give strength to the jaws for biting down and holding.

 Unlike humans, alligators do not chew—they grab and hold, taking their prey under water to drown it. After drowning their prey, they do a “death roll” to rip off pieces that can be swallowed easier. Alligators produce enough hydrochloric acid in their stomachs to break food down within 5-7 days, depending on the temperatures. Reptiles must have heat energy to digest food and move around, and that is where the knobs come in.

The knobs up and down an alligator’s back are called scoots, or ostioderms, and are boney plates directly underneath the skin. Scoots provide armor for battle while also acting as solar panels to absorb heat. Blood vessels beneath the plates carry heat throughout the rest of their body.

Alligators are active during warmer months, eating and storing energy in preparation for the colder months when they do not eat because their bodies cannot digest the food. They also breed during this time. Breeding season occurs from mid-April through May. In June, females establish their nests by piling up big mounds of leaves, sticks, dirt and debris which act as a compost heap to incubate the eggs. Female alligators do not sit on their eggs, but they do stay around the nest to provide protection from raccoons, possums, snakes, turtles, etc.

A typical alligator clutch is about 30 eggs, although it can range from 10 to 60. After the eggs are laid, it normally takes about 65 days before they hatch out. Joseph and the team collect eggs from the nests at Alligator Alley and incubate them themselves. By doing this, they can keep a count of how many new alligators they will have on the property and protect the hatchlings from predators. In addition, they can control the sex of the hatchlings by regulating incubation temperatures. Like the sea turtles we learned about with Dr. Simpson, an alligator’s gender is determined by the incubation temperatures. Eggs incubated around 84°F will produce females, while eggs incubated at a warmer temperature (about 95°F) will produce males. At Alligator Alley, Joseph said they incubate their eggs between 85-90°F to get an even number of males and females.

Thanks to Alligator Alley, we get to see these reptiles up close in their natural habitats and teach our young people about them. What greater classroom could we ask for than the great outdoors where we can teach students about being good stewards of our environment?

Marine Science Adventures and Alligator Alley both proved to be hidden treasures for emphasizing the importance of our environment. We saw firsthand how all the parts connect to form the big picture, as well as the role each part plays. Stacey Holt, a Science Co-op teacher from Gadsden, Alabama, said this about her experience with her home school group from New Foundations Academy: “This Marine Science Adventures Field Trip has been a great hands-on experience for our students. It really brings science to life and helps the students own it.”

If you are interested in customizing your own Marine Science Adventures Field Trip, visit their website, or call Tim Hill at 251-948-8800.

Stephanie Miller

With over 25 years experience, Stephanie serves as a senior copywriter, social media director, and senior editor for Science Scene. Stephanie is always on the lookout for new educational and STEM-related opportunities and technology.