Despite being big, cold-blooded, voracious hunters, mama alligators are actually very loving parents. From the time she lays her eggs until the babies are able to hunt on their own, the mother alligator fiercely protects her children. Alligators start their lives as eggs on a swampy shore and can live for several decades.
The Egg Stage
Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) begin their lives as eggs sheltered by their mothers. Mother alligators usually lay about 20 to 50 eggs in a nest made of mud, sticks, fronds and other plant matter. The nests are usually located along the banks of ponds and marshes, and are about 3 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter. The mother alligator vehemently guards the nest and keeps it covered with vegetation to incubate the eggs. Just before the alligators are ready to hatch, they begin peeping and squeaking. This alerts the mother that she should remove the vegetation in preparation for hatching. The temperature at the nest site will determine whether the eggs develop into males or females. Cooler temperatures between 82 and 86 degrees F produce females, moderate temperatures between 82 and 90 degrees will produce a gender mix, and warm temperatures between 90 and 93 degrees will produce a litter of baby male alligators.
The Juvenile Stage
The eggs usually hatch in June or July. After the hatchlings emerge from their eggs, the mother alligator immediately carries them to the water. Sometimes the mother carries the young on her back as she swims. The babies are already carnivores that eat small animals in the water and near it, like insects, shrimp, tadpoles, frogs and small fish. The mother alligator stays with her young for at least the first year of their lives, protecting them with all her ferocity. A group of juvenile alligators with a mother is called a pod. Sometimes pods include juveniles hatched from other nests.
Developing into Adulthood
Generally the young stay with the mother for one year, but they can remain in the pod for up to three years. Staying in pods helps protect the young alligators from predators such as raccoons, large fish, birds of prey, and even other alligators. Large male alligators have been known to predate the young. The juvenile alligators will call to the mother for protection when they feel threatened. Once the young alligators reach 4 feet in length, they're considered virtually invulnerable in the wild, except to humans and other, bigger alligators. At this point they're able to separate from their pods and make it on their own. Female American alligators rarely grow to over 10 feet long, but males can reach 10 to 15 feet in length. Alligators generally become sexually mature at 10 to 12 years old. A length of 6 feet is also an indicator of sexual maturity for female gators.
The Reproductive Years
When the alligators are old enough to mate, they spawn in spring. Males congregate around a female, who then selects her mate. When the animals have paired, the male will defend his female from other potential suitors, scaring them off with thrashing and roars. The male makes his intentions known to the female by nudging and bumping her. After the pair mate, the female goes off to build her nest. The male alligator doesn't participate in raising the young. Adult alligators repeat these mating rituals annually. In the wild alligators live from 35 to 50 years.
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