Though we often consider American alligators menacing and fierce, they’re truly a creature of wonder. One look at this giant, lizard-like animal conjures an image of something you’ve only seen in books (or maybe Jurassic Park). The dinosaur connection is not just a coincidence—scientists believe gators have roamed the earth for more than 150 million years, managing to well outlive the dinosaurs, who became extinct 65 million years ago. But they are twin sons of different mothers.
What’s crazy is that though gators survived the massive meteor or climate change or whatever the heck killed T. rex and company, they were almost snuffed out completely in the 1960s. Loss of habitat, improperly managed wildlife areas, and excessive hunting led to dwindling gator populations, and in 1967, they were put on the endangered species list. Since then, the reptiles have bounced back considerably and were removed from the list in 1987. They still thrive in southeastern America, especially in Florida and Louisiana.
Why Alligator Meat?
Gators may save your life. Okay, so maybe that’s a little extreme, but with concerns about cholesterol, fat, and calories, many people are looking for beef alternatives. Chicken and turkey continue to populate tables across the country, but maybe it’s time we start eating gator. Sounds weird, but it’s true: Gator is one of the healthiest proteins you can feast on. Alligator meat has a fine texture, similar to chicken and pork, but contains less calories, fat, and cholesterol than either of the “other white meats.”
If you order gator in a restaurant (or make it at home), what often ends up on your plate comes from the long muscle in the tail. It’s also possible to eat gator ribs and wings (which come from those little T. rex–like legs). In some cultures, people often eat the meat raw—but that’s not recommended unless the animal is (a) dead and (b) very fresh. Bon appetit!
Ever since the 1975 cinematic thriller Jaws, some of us have been a little afraid to dip our toes in the water. Sharks-schmarks … gators are the water-lurking species that give me the willies. These carnivores’ mouths are stuffed with seventy to eighty teeth, designed for gripping and ripping. They have the most powerful bite in the animal kingdom—3,000 pounds per square inch! Oddly enough, while a gator could literally sever your leg in one chomp, the muscles required to open a gator jaw are wimpy. You could keep their mouths sealed with a thick rubber band (or your hands if you’re crazy enough to wrestle one).
How to Survive an Alligator Attack
Getting stuck in an elevator with seven other people after a chili cook-off is the only thing I can think of that’s scarier than an alligator attack. These animals are hungry, powerful, and essentially prehistoric, which makes them some of the baddest boys roaming the earth. Though attacks are uncommon, you’re not necessarily doomed if you keep these things in mind:
1. STAY OUT OF HARM’S WAY. If you’re in gatorville (i.e., Florida and Louisiana), don’t go swimming at dawn or dusk—a favorite hunting time for these reptilians. Be mindful of alligator nests (typically made with rotting vegetation around the edge of wetlands. These can be up to 3.5 feet high) and keep your distance—if you think your mom can be mean, you don’t even want to know what an angry alligator mom is like. Don’t ever feed wild gators, no matter how cute they are! This desensitizes them to humans and makes them associate you with lunch, which is what you will be if you keep feeding them.
2. RUN LIKE HECK. You’ve probably heard that gators are really fast, both in and out of the water. On land, they can reach a speed of 10 miles per hour. And in the water, well, let’s just say that regardless of speed, they can hold their breath a whole lot longer than you can. So if you’re in danger of a gator attack, run like heck. You may have heard that it’s best to run in a zigzag pattern, but don’t. It’s important to put as much distance between you and the gator as possible.
3. EYES ON THE PRIZE. So you didn’t listen to any of this advice and now a gator’s got your arm. Your best plan of attack is to gouge the reptile’s eyes. Jam your thumb into its sockets—this will hopefully blind and disorient the animal, plus it will hurt—a lot. If and when the gator lets go, see step two.
4. ROLL WITH THE PUNCHES. If you’re trapped in a gator’s vise grip, expect the animal to start a death roll. This move is not unlike a figure skater’s spin—the alligator tucks in its legs and moves its tail to the side. The inertia created by this movement allows the crocodilian to spin, and dismembers its prey in the process. Due to their cone-shaped teeth, alligators can’t chew, and instead they rely on this technique to create “bites” small enough to swallow whole. Your last-ditch effort is to attempt to roll in the same direction as the alligator so it doesn’t rip off a limb. Best of luck.
GATOR FACT OR FICTION
MYTH: Temperature determines the sex of a gator.
FACT! If a gator’s eggs are kept at less than 88 degrees the gator will be a female; if it’s warmer than 91 degrees it will be a male.
MYTH: You have to be crazy to wrestle an alligator.
FACT! No explanation needed.
MYTH: Alligators make good pets.
FICTION! Grizzly bears, venomous snakes, and alligators don’t make good pets! They aren’t cuddly, they won’t do any cool tricks, and they’re not afraid to take a bite of your finger just to see what you taste like. You want a pet? Get a hermit crab.
MYTH: Alligators have the most powerful jaws in the animal kingdom.
FACT! When a gator bites down on something—a fish, turtle, or even wild pig!—the force rivals that of a falling pickup truck.
MYTH: Momma gators eat their hatchlings.
FICTION! Though gator cannibalism isn’t unheard of, mothers do not eat their young. However, the mother gator will protect her young by carrying them around in her mouth.
More Bizarre Truth About Gators
• The biggest alligator ever recorded was 19 feet, 2 inches. That’s about the same size as the sleek and saucy 1979 Lincoln Continental. It’s double the length of the world’s tallest man on record, Robert Wadlow. When he passed away at the age of twenty-two, he measured 8 feet, 11 inches and was still growing. And it’s the same length as 19.16 foot-long hot dogs.
• Alligators typically live about thirty to fifty years.
• When alligators close their mouths, every fourth tooth fits into a hole in the top jaw.
• The scales on a gator are called scutes, and they create a protective armor.
• Alligators live in a subtropical climate, meaning they live in places with a lot of rain and mild winters.
• To swim, alligators typically tuck their arms and legs in at their sides to create a streamlined shape. They then use their long tails to propel themselves forward.
• When gators go underwater, they have skin flaps that cover their nostrils and throats so they don’t inhale water.
• Gators can hold their breath for up to thirty minutes. Sometimes the air in their lungs can cause them to float. Some alligators will swallow rocks to weigh them down in the water. The rocks can also help with digestion.
ALLIGATORS VS. CROCODILES
• While both are from the same family and are called “crocodilians,” alligators have smaller snouts and are usually smaller in size.
• While crocodiles can be found around the world, alligators are only native to the United States and Asia.
• Alligators prefer fresh water but sometimes live in brackish water. Crocodiles are typically found in salt water.
• Alligators hibernate in “gator holes”—a den dug with their claws and snout where they can rest during the dry season or winter. Crocodiles don’t hibernate.
• Southern Florida is the only place in the wild where both crocodiles and alligators live.
• The teeth of a crocodile and an alligator are arranged differently.
• Both can be found in tropical swamps.
When Life Gives You Gators, Make Gatorade
A gigantic cooler of Gatorade is a football sideline fixture, but what’s the story behind this ubiquitous sports drink? (And why in the heck is it called Gatorade?)
In 1965, the University of Florida’s assistant football coach wanted to figure out why the heat completely drained his team’s energy. He called on the university’s physicians to look into the problem. They assembled a research team and discovered two key factors: The fluids and electrolytes the players lost through sweat were not being replaced, and the large amounts of carbohydrates the players’ bodies used for energy were not being replenished.
The researchers formulated a new beverage aimed at replacing the carbs and electrolytes lost in sweat. They named their beverage after the team it helped—the Florida Gators. The team saw a difference almost instantly. They started outperforming higher-ranking teams, and the following year they won the Orange Bowl. Other teams (both college and professional) started providing this miracle drink to players. Today, Gatorade can be found on the sidelines of more than seventy Division I colleges. In 1983, Gatorade became the official sports drink of the NFL—a title it holds to this day. It’s also the official sports drink of the NBA, AVP, PGA, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, and numerous other elite and professional organizations and teams.
THINGS FOUND IN GATORS’ BELLIES:
Alligators mostly subsist on a diet of fish, turtles, snakes, small rodents, and birds. However, these animals are omnivorous and will eat pretty much anything they can sink their teeth into. For example:
LOTS OF DOG COLLARS
Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Zimmern
Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Chuck Gonzales