The other day I was hiking through the Santee National Wildlife Refuge just outside historic Summerton, South Carolina. It was a warm spring day in late March and the alligators appeared to be out in force. I don't know much about alligators but have a healthy respect for them, so I took care to keep an eye out and stayed far away from them - though I did take some cool photographs of them from a distance.
After returning home, I did a little research and decided to share what I found with other novices who might be visiting and hiking through swamps to observe the local wildlife in South Carolina. Here are some basic facts about American alligators you might find interesting.
- Alligators in the wild are believed to live 35-50 years. In captivity their life span may be significantly longer, perhaps 60-80 years. The longest recorded length for an alligator is 19' 2'. However, most wild alligators do not get above 13 feet in length and may weigh 600 pounds or more.
- Alligators do not like to chase people. One SC Department of Natural Resources (DNR) employee who has trapped more than 2,000 alligators in 17 years has not had a single alligator, that wasn't cornered, move aggressively toward him.
- The American alligator is quite agile and is capable of moving at 30 miles per hour for short distances. However, it is rare for an alligator to pursue a human because they are too large to be suitable prey. They are most likely to charge at you if you are near their nest. If an alligator charges you, run better fast and straight - away from the alligator.
- Alligators have very good eyesight, which is an important adaptation for hunting. They are especially adapted to see and sense movement of potential prey animals. Also, alligators have sharp claws and powerful tails to help them push their bodies up and have been known to actually climb fences to get to water or escape captivity.
- The American alligator is the only large predator remaining in South Carolina, yet many visitors and residents remain unaware of how to avoid potential conflicts with it. Good judgment and the ability to understand the animals’ behavior are important for avoiding problems.
- Because alligators are regularly observed lazily basking along water bodies, some people mistakenly assume that they are docile and harmless. Normally, alligators will stay away from humans and pose little threat to them. However, alligators should never be approached and people should avoid becoming complacent in and around water bodies.
- Alligators’ predatory nature and potentially large size demands respect. Although attacks on people are rare, they do occasionally occur. Most attacks on humans are by animals 9-10 feet or larger. Attacks on pets are not uncommon.
- Most alligator problems occur between early March and July which is the breeding season. They are also generally more visible at this time of the year because they want to get out of the cold water and warm up in the sunshine. Remember, alligators will not normally flee while on land – they will face you and stand their ground.
- Alligators should normally retreat into the water at the approach of humans. Nevertheless, don't get closer than 15 feet to an alligator. If it hisses or opens its mouth in defense, you should back away immediately. Most attacks associated with alligators occur when they have been fed by humans or when they are defending their nests.
- Most attacks occur while the victim is at least partially in the water. Work in pairs and stay alert when working in or near fresh and brackish water. Remain on the lookout and be aware of your surroundings. Most attack victims report they were unaware of the alligator's presence until the last minute.
- Leave alligators alone. Observe and photograph alligators only from a distance. Smaller alligators, four feet or less, pose little threat. However, never toy with smaller alligators. In the wild. Their mother may be nearby.
- Never feed or entice alligators - it’s both dangerous and illegal. When fed, alligators overcome their natural wariness and learn to associate people with food. Feeding alligators creates a danger for everyone.
- Alligators are most active between dusk and dawn. Therefore, swim only during daylight hours. Large alligators feed most actively during the evening hours. Closely supervise children when they are playing in or around water.
- Don't let your pets swim, exercise, drink from, or run along the shoreline of waters that may contain alligators as they are about the same size as an alligator’s natural prey. Appropriate fencing of your waterfront property will help protect family and pets against incursions by alligators.
- Don't try to remove alligators from their natural habitat or try to keep one as a pet. It is strictly against the law to do so and is dangerous. Alligators do not become tame in captivity and handling even small ones can result in injury.
- Finally, every alligator bite requires prompt medical treatment because of the high infection potential.
Selected Sources of Information on American Alligators