The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis ) is a member of the reptilian family Crocodylidae, which consists of 21 species found in tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world. It is a species that has been reclaimed from the brink of extinction .
Historically, the American alligator ranged in the Gulf and Atlantic coast states from Texas to the Carolinas, with rather large populations concentrated in the swamps and river bottomlands of Florida and Louisiana. From the late nineteenth century into the middle of the twentieth century, the population of this species decreased dramatically. With no restrictions on their activities, hunters killed alligators as pests or to harvest their skin, which was highly valued in the leather trade. The American alligator was killed in such great numbers that biologists predicted its probable extinction. It has been estimated that about 3.5 million of these reptiles were slaughtered in Louisiana between 1880 and 1930. The population was also impacted by the fad of selling young alligators as pets, principally in the 1950s.
States began to take action in the early 1960s to save the alligator from extinction. In 1963 Louisiana banned all legalized trapping , closed the alligator hunting season, and stepped up enforcement of game laws against poachers. By the time the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, the species was already experiencing a rapid recovery. Because of the successful re-establishment of alligator populations, its endangered classification was downgraded in several southeastern states, and there are now strictly regulated seasons that allow alligator trapping. Due to the persistent demand for its hide for leather goods and an increasing market for the reptile's meat, alligator farms are now both legal and profitable.
Human fascination with large, dangerous animals, along with the American alligator's near extinction, have made it one of North America's best studied reptile species. Population pressures, primarily resulting from being hunted so ruthlessly for decades, have resulted in a decrease in the maximum size attained by this species. The growth of a reptile is indeterminate, and they continue to grow as long as they are alive, but old adults from a century ago attained larger sizes than their counterparts do today. The largest recorded American alligator was an old male killed in January 1890, in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, which measured 19.2 ft (6 m) long. The largest female ever taken was only about half that size.
Alligators do not reach sexual maturity until they are about 6 ft (1.3 m) long and nearly 10 years old. Females construct a nest mound in which they lay about 35–50 eggs. The nest is usually 5–7 ft (1.5–2.1 m) in diameter and 2–3 ft (0.6–0.9 m) high, and decaying vegetation produces heat which keeps the eggs at a fairly constant temperature during incubation. The young stay with their mother through their first winter, striking out on their own when they are about
1.5 ft (0.5 m) in length.
[Eugene C. Beckham ]
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Dundee, H. A., and D. A. Rossman. The Amphibians and Reptiles of Louisiana. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1989.
Webb, G. J. W., S. C. Manolis, and P. J. Whitehead, eds. Wildlife Management: Crocodiles and Alligators. Chipping Norton, Australia: Surrey Beatty and Sons, 1987.
"Alligator mississippiensis in the Crocodilians, Natural History and Conservation." Florida Museum of Natural History. [cited May 2002] <http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/cnhc/csp_amis.htm>.
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