Wednesday, July 20, 2011


In the next few weeks, baby alligators, cramped in chicken-sized, leathery eggs that look like deflated balloons will begin to grunt. It’s really more like a bark. It tells mama alligator, who has patiently defended the nest for the last sixty-three days, that her babies are ready to bust out of their eggs and crawl into the light.

Female alligators often make nests in secluded areas of a swamp, mostly for protection from other alligators. They scrape vegetation and mud into a large mound typically four feet wide and three feet high. They can lay anywhere from 20-80  eggs in the nest before covering it over and allowing the decaying vegetation to produce the heat that will incubate the eggs and support the development of her baby gators or “grunts”.

As an ectotherm, or “cold-blooded” reptile, she can’t contribute heat to the nest. Her role is to protect the nest from predators like raccoons, opossums, snakes and crows. The sound of the grunts barking encourages her to scrape the top off the nest and assist in their introduction into the water. When they are born they are typically six inches long. By their first birthday they have grown to a foot in length and grow on average, a foot a year for the first seven years of their lives.

As young grunts they are near the bottom of the food chain. Hatchlings can be eaten by Wood Storks, Snapping Turtles, Raccoons, Large Mouth Bass and other Alligators. Within a few years they are on the top of the food chain and can eat anything they can chomp and swallow. People are not on the menu.

On an incredibly scenic bike ride through the 7,017 acre Bird Rookery Swamp Management Unit in the Corkscrew Regional Watershed Ecosystem in Naples, FL we spotted well over one hundred grunts, many gathered in “pods” and sitting on logs or floating in the duckweed. Most of them did an alligator cannonball at the sound or sight of our presence. Each one guarded by a mama gator, seen or unseen. 

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