By Ali Dunstan

A symbol of abundant wilderness and untamed wetland landscapes, the American alligator is the official state reptile of Florida. These large, scaled, prehistoric creatures are often feared as monsters instead of being seen as an important part of our ecosystem

Hunted to near extinction in the mid-1900s, American alligators were listed as endangered in 1967. An increased interest in their meat and leathery hides combined with an expanding loss of habitat, alligator populations were at risk of being lost forever.

In 1973, the endangered species act prohibited hunting of alligators, an act of preservation that saved these animals from disappearing. Later, in 1987, the American alligator made a full recovery as populations rebounded, becoming a revered success story.

Today, Florida is home to an estimated population of over 1 million alligators, giving us the largest population of alligators in the world. A freshwater reptile, gators can be found in almost any wetland, including ponds, rivers, swamps, lakes, marshes and brackish waters. They are very important to our aquatic habitats and are considered a keystone species.

Opportunistic eaters, their usual prey includes freshwater fish, turtles, birds, snakes, frogs, small mammals and invertebrates. Mating begins in early spring, with most hatches occurring in the summer months of August and September. Babies have a bright yellow banding that will disappear as they mature. Unlike other reptiles, alligators will rear their young anywhere from 1-2 years in an effort to protect them from predation.

Alligators can live up to 40 years in the wild and can grow an average of 8-10 feet in length. As an adult, the main predator and greatest risk to a gator’s mortality are humans.

Living with alligators: With ever-increasing population demands and constant land development to compensate, it is inevitable that you will come across a gator in Florida. Remember that it is illegal to feed, harass, harm or kill an alligator. Be mindful to swim only in designated bodies of water during daylight hours.

Observe from safe distances. Pets must remain on leashes and always be supervised. Refrain from the use of retractable dog leashes. Incidents are extremely rare and adhering to the law will reduce conflict with alligators.

Unnecessarily reporting the sighting of a gator can lead to their death as relocations are very infrequent. Vital to their survival is our appreciation and respect of this incredible, prehistoric species, and together we can cohabitate for generations to come.