The American alligator is the largest reptile in North America. American alligators are found in the southeastern United States from Texas to Carolina. They live in freshwater lakes, swamps, marshes, ponds, bayous, and rivers.
American alligators grow from about 9.25 to 16.5 feet (2.8-5 m) long. They can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds (454 kg). American alligators have thick leather skin covered with bony plates called osteoderms. Alligators have large, broad heads and rounded snouts. (Crocodiles have pointed snouts.) Alligators have powerful jaws with about 80 conical teeth. One characteristic of the American alligator is that the fourth large tooth on either side of the lower jaw fits into a socket in the upper jaw.
American alligators have long muscular, laterally flattened tails with keeled scales that run the length of the tail. They also have webbed feet. An alligator propels itself through the water by tucking its legs against its body and sweeping its tail back and forth An alligator can swim faster than a person can paddle a canoe. On land, alligators crawl or slither on their undersides or they lift themselves up and walk in a slow waddle. Alligators can lift their legs up under their body and gallop short distances. They can run faster than most humans.
American alligators hunt at night with only their eyes, ears, and nostrils above the water. They drift or swim stealthily, then lunge at their prey. An alligator can lunge out of the water to catch a bird or an animal close to the water on land. American alligators eat fish, turtles, crabs, frogs, snakes, water birds, and mammals as large as deer. They swallow their food whole or in chunks. They chomp down on large prey then twist, roll, and spin until the animals are shaken and dismembered into smaller portions. An alligator’s stomach acids can digest bones and turtle shells.
American alligators are always near water. In summer, when the water table falls, the alligator will create “alligator holes” by digging away sand and mud and retreating into the water at the bottom of the hole. During the winter, American alligators burrow into the mud or into an earthen bank near water and go dormant for as long as five months, sleeping through the winter until spring.
American alligators mate in spring. Male alligators roar to attract females. Alligators mate underwater. Female alligators build grass and mud nests and lay 25 to 60 eggs in early summer. When the babies hatch, the mother carries them to the water in her mouth. Hatchlings are about 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm) long. Baby alligators stay with their mother for as long as 3 years. Alligators reach maturity at about 5 years of age.
The American alligator has a lifespan of about 40 years. The scientific name of the American alligator is Alligator mississippiensis.
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