Ecotours and Alligators
By Trish Elliot
Zach McKenna, the owner and operator of St. Augustine Ecotours.com, strives to both support and expand the natural experience of witnessing nature.
Zach grew up in the marshes of Hilton Head, South Carolina, and worked as a naturalist and guide as a young man, which fueled his passion for marine life. He graduated from Flager College in St. Augustine with a business degree and after spending some time in Colorado, put down his roots in St. Augustine in 2003, beginning his ecotourism business. Zach and his educated staff strive to create adventurous yet respectful experiences for all ages.
One of the local animals you can see on his tours, in the brackish waters of St. Augustine, is the alligator.
Florida and Louisiana have the largest population of alligators, The American Alligator in the United States. Alligators, after being hunted for many years for their hides, are now environmentally protected. It is also against the law to feed alligators, since that act would breed familiarity with humans, and might lead to more attacks against people. Most alligators are shy, and will scurry away when humans approach.
Alligators live in fresh water lakes, swamps, and brackish waters. They increase the plant diversity, and provide habitats for other animals, especially during droughts. Almost every body of fresh water in Florida, for instance, is populated with alligators, and they have become a nuisance on many golf courses, living in the shallow waters.
The large male alligator is solitary and territorial, and can grow up to 9 feet. Smaller alligators live closer together, more like herds. Although alligators have a slow metabolism, they are capable of short bursts of speed, to obtain prey or attack. When they seize small prey with their jaws, they drag it into the water to drown it. Alligators consume food that can not be eaten in one bite by allowing it to rot, or by biting and then spinning or convulsing wildly until bite-size chunks are torn off. This is referred to as a “death roll.” In order to initiate a death roll, the tail must flex to a significant angle relative to its body and an alligator with an immobilized tail cannot perform it.
Most of the muscle in an alligator’s jaw evolved to bite and grip prey. The muscles that close the jaws are exceptionally powerful, but the muscles for opening their jaws are comparatively weak. As a result, an adult human can hold an alligator’s jaws shut barehanded, as you may have witnessed firsthand in some resorts, or as a stunt. It is common today to use several wraps of duct tap to prevent an adult alligator from opening its jaws when handled or transported.
The mating season for the alligator is late spring, in May or June, and you can hear large groups bellowing, especially in the evening, for their mates to appear. When the female lays eggs, there are usually about 15 hatchlings, but only about 6 reach adulthood. The sex of the offspring, interestingly enough, is determined by the temperature of the nest itself: the males usually come from a nest about 93 degrees Farenheit, and the females about 86 degrees.
The hatchlings, or baby alligators, have several natural predators, among them raccoons, otters, and bears.
The most recent evidence indicates that alligators and dinosaurs evolved from a common ancestor that lived subsequent to the common ancestor they share with other reptiles. So, even though alligators are classified as reptiles along with lizards, snakes, and turtles, they are actually more closely related to birds, whose direct ancestors were dinosaurs.
If you would like to know more about these ancient creatures, when you are in the St. Augustine Florida area, make sure you take one of the Eco tours with Zach McKenna or one of his able guides. StAugustineEcotours.com