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Herp Highlight #1: American Alligator

In an effort to show off some of our amazing herp species here at the museum, I am starting a new series of “Herp Highlight” posts that will showcase some of our awesome Virginia natives. And to start off our highlight series I have chosen the most obvious candidate, the “biggest and baddest” of our reptiles, our American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). At just over six feet and weighing in at about 110 lbs, the alligator on exhibit is the largest reptile the herpetology team cares for at the museum (this does not include the Loggerhead Sea Turtle, cared for by our awesome Aquariums department)!

“Wait a minute! There are no gators in Virginia!” Well that’s a good point: There are no wild alligators in Virginia…for now. In the past, the range of American Alligators extended just up into Virginia, mostly in the area of the Great Dismal Swamp. However, hunting in the 1900’s decimated the populations of gators, driving them to the brink of extinction. In 1973, the American Alligator was listed on the Endangered Species Act and became federally protected. Since that time, alligator numbers have miraculously rebounded and the species was taken off the endangered list in 1987, making alligators a true conservation success story. Though they have not returned to Virginia just yet, American Alligators can be found from Florida to North Carolina, just shy of the VA border.

In the wild, male alligators may grow as large as 14 feet (females reach about 10) and feed on a variety of animals including fish, turtles, snakes, water birds, frogs, and shoreline mammals. In recent years, researchers have been surprised to find that alligators (and their crocodile cousins) also often feed on fruits and berries growing around their habitat, making them omnivorous and not strictly carnivores as previously believed. Here at the Living Museum our alligators receive a diet of mice/rats, smelt, croc-chow, trout and catfish!

Here are just a few fun facts about alligators!:

  • Alligators have around 80 teeth which the shed frequently like sharks. An alligator may go through 2,000-3,000 teeth in its lifetime!
  • Even though alligators are reptiles, they are more closely related to birds.
  • Most reptiles and amphibians have a three-chambered heart. The alligator has a four-chambered heart just like birds and mammals.
  • Female gators make very devoted mothers, and will care for their young for up to 2 years!
  • The word “alligator” come from the Spanish word for lizard, “el legarto”.
  • Alligators are covered in a tough armor called osteoderms, which is made up of bone embedded in their skin.
  • The temperature of the nest determines whether the hatchlings will be male or female! This is known as temperature dependent sex determination.
  • Alligators have acute sensory organs in their jaws that can detect disturbances in the water.

Be sure to stop by the Living Museum this summer and pay a visit to our american alligator!

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf




  • Brian Mohl

    I don’t think Alligators will ever be back in Virginia, because they are not allowed. There is such a mass hysteria about them in “Hampton Roads”. Every time one is found, authorities immediately say “alligators don’t belong here”, and they are immediately captured and deported to North Carolina.

    • Thomas Waser

      Thanks for your comment Brian! You are absolutely right that alligators face a lot of fear from humans which will likely impact the growth of their range. The gators found in the Hampton Roads (Tidewater area in general) are typically removed because of their uncomfortably close proximity to people; these “problem gators” are deemed a possible risk to humans so they are moved to more remote locations where they will be less likely to have a negative human interaction. Individual alligators do occasionally venture into Virginia, but are only considered problematic when they get too close to people. Alligators are sometimes found in VA’s Great Dismal Swamp, but are left alone as long as they stay more or less where they belong (Gators are naturally timid of human activity so they are not especially likely to cause any problems). It’s when they venture outside their habit that people say they don’t belong. Will we ever see alligators in the Hampton Roads area? Not likely, gators would probably do their best to avoid populated areas. But it’s very likely that we will see populations in the remote southernmost swamps of Virginia, residing further away from people.

  • Tom forrest

    There has been no fossil evidence of American alligators found anywhere in VA, despite breeding populations being present not too far south of the state line. This raises doubts as to the likelihood of future colonization within VA, as climatic differences are presumably the limiting factor, and today’s warming trend has actually been replicated multiple times over the past 10000 years. Continued periods of mild winters may allow certain extant individuals to take up residence here, only to be killed back during cooler years.

    Keep in mind that the often-cited populations just across the state line (merchants millpond comes to mind) are not part of any breeding population either. Apparently a threshold is reached somewhere south of that location, and frankly I don’t see it making it’s way north into Virginia.

    • Thomas Waser

      Thank you for you comment, Tom; you are absolutely correct. Virginia is too cold for American alligators to breed and establish a native population. What I meant when I said their populations once extended just up into VA was that the adult individuals living on the edges of their ranges would occasionally just reach the Great Dismal Swamp area (yes, I know that technically falls outside their accepted native range, however that is our justification for exhibiting alligators at the museum). While it is unlikely that alligators will be breeding in VA at any point, it’s not unreasonable to expect that we will see a small increase in the number of adult individuals who have expanded just past the Virginia/Carolina border.

      • David Prodoehl

        According to the USDA interactive hardiness zone map, the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia is zone 8a. There are breeding alligators in Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas which, according to the USDA, is a slightly cooler zone 7b. You can see a drone-video produced by a local TV station of an testy mother alligator with her young at Holla Bend NWR at the link below. If alligators can successfully breed there it’s possible that they can breed in Virginia too. Life finds a way, and the alligators are not reading their range maps. Here is the link (copy and paste if it’s not hyperlinked):

  • Chad

    Observing American Alligators in Southeastern Virginia makes complete sense. The climate there seems to be just good enough for them to survive, and it is also the natural range limit for a lot of other southern animals species, as well as plant species. It is a lot different then the rest of Virginia climate wise and I always called it the “true start of the South” when it comes to wildlife. There are multiple pictures of alligators in this area of Virginia on iNaturalist. It seems more like it is people who don’t want them there, rather than the climate not allowing for it. Let nature be where it wants to be.

  • Noah

    I don’t think they are a problem because they aren’t around my family in South Carolina. If you leave them alone they leave you alone, simple as that. Sometimes they get crazy but just go inside and wait a couple hours. They survive just fine around humans as we do around them. I think they are frowned upon up here because of how stupid people are and the game wardens know that someone would find a way to sue over someone getting injured by one. To be honest gators make pond fishing more fun, you get good workouts running when they swim towards you (from a distance of course)