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American Alligator

Sovereign of the Swamp

by Dan Breeding on February 25, 2010
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The thought of alligators may send shivers up your back, and rightly so. But like other predators in this now-fallen world, they continue to serve a purpose in God’s plan—reminding us about the Curse caused by Adam’s sin. Their incredible designs have enabled alligators to thrive despite the challenges of living in a watery environment.

He makes no sound, creating only ripples on the water’s surface as he glides toward his unsuspecting prey. He looks like little more than a floating log—until he lunges with speed and agility that seem impossible for such an ungainly creature. He is the alligator, flawlessly designed to live and hunt in the water.

Full Speed Ahead!

At my nonprofit educational ministry Creatures of Creation, I am privileged to work with Auggie, an American alligator, who continues to wow audiences with his amazing design. The American alligator is native to rivers and swamps all across the southeastern United States. Like all members of the order Crocodylia, the American alligator can move fast in the water. His heavy, muscular tail propels him almost instantaneously to remarkable speeds of 25–30 miles per hour (40–48 km/h), while his webbed feet help him steer and paddle.

Alligator Eye

BUILT-IN GOGGLES Alligators have an extra transparent eyelid, called a nictitating membrane, that protects their eyes when underwater. Photo copyright Joe Blossom / Photo Researchers, Inc.

These two ingenious design features make the alligator a fearsome predator, as he chases fish, birds, and small mammals. But alligators were not always meat-eaters. Genesis reveals that all animals originally ate plants, but Adam’s sin brought a curse on the earth, and their diet and behavior changed as a result. The alligator’s ability to survive in a now-fallen world still shows the Creator’s handiwork.1

The alligator can do more than just swim fast; in many other ways, he is uniquely designed for life in the water. Located on the same plane, his eyes, nose, and ear slits allow him to float mostly submerged and still see, smell, and hear above water. Since alligators frequently hunt at night, their eyes are equipped with cat-like pupils to see well in the dark.

People often use ear plugs, nose plugs, and goggles when they swim, to keep water from going where it’s not supposed to, but alligators don’t have that problem. Their nose and ear slits are designed to close when they plunge into the water. And the nictitating membrane, a protective covering over the eye, allows alligators to keep their eyes open underwater. Imagine having your own built-in goggles!

Alligator Smile

BEAUTIFUL SMILE! An alligator’s smiling mouth can snap shut with the same force as a small pickup truck slamming into a brick wall (2,125 pounds of force). Photo © Hakoar | Dreamstime.com

The alligator also has a special valve at the back of his throat that allows him to open his mouth and eat food underwater without choking. While I wouldn’t recommend opening your mouth the next time you dive, the alligator can do that safely (safely for him—not his prey).

This special valve, called the epiglottis valve, shuts water out from his lungs so he can fill his mouth with fish and then surface when he’s ready to swallow. Alligators are also able to breathe while partially submerged, even with their mouths full of water.

Feeling the Pressure

One of the most remarkable features of the alligator is his ability to sense movement in the water. Along his upper and lower jaws are sensory pits, called dermal pressure receptors, or DPRs, which are full of extra-sensitive nerves that detect the slightest disturbance. So if a duck, raccoon, or tourist decides to take a dip in the river, the alligator lurking silently nearby will instantly be aware of its presence. But don’t be afraid, unless you’re the duck or raccoon! The American alligator is normally shy and nonconfrontational around humans, and will likely just swim away.

Catch Some Rays

Like all reptiles, alligators are exothermic, which means that their body heat is not produced from within, like mammals, but gained from without. While you and I have a fairly constant body temperature regardless of our surroundings, the body temperature of a reptile depends on the temperature of its environment. Thus, reptiles depend on heat from the sun to survive. (This explains why the reptile house at the zoo is always so warm.)

Alligators can grow to be massive—adult males average 13 feet (4 m) long and 800 pounds (363 kg)—and heating such a large animal is as challenging as heating a large house. Alligators also rely on heat from the sun to digest their food. Although the American alligator can survive low temperatures, undigested food in its stomach will eventually kill it. But our all-knowing God designed the alligator with solar panels on his back: bumpy scales full of blood vessels that can draw in heat quickly, helping him to stay warm and digest his food.

I never cease to be amazed at my alligator, Auggie, and God’s brilliant design for this fascinating creature—a swimming and hunting machine. God in His perfect care and wisdom designed the alligator to do what it does, and to do it very well.

Did You Know?

  • Gator or croc? There are two easy ways to tell the difference: alligators have a u-shaped snout, while crocodiles have a v-shaped snout; and alligators’ lower teeth are not visible when their jaws are closed, while crocodiles’ lower teeth are visible. Both alligators and crocodiles can be dangerous to humans, but crocodiles pose a greater threat than alligators.
  • Alligators prefer to live in fresh water, but crocodiles have a salt-filtering gland that allows them to live in salt water.
  • A group of adult alligators is called a congregation. If they’re hatchlings or juveniles, then the group is called a pod.
  • There are two species of alligator: the common American alligator and the critically endangered Chinese alligator.
  • The gender of a baby alligator is determined by the temperature of the nest while the eggs are incubating; a higher temperature produces males.
  • The word alligator is from the Spanish el lagarto, meaning “the lizard.”
  • Alligators will sometimes swallow stones to help them digest their food. These stones are called gastroliths.
  • The color of an alligator’s skin depends on the quality of the water he lives in. For example, water with a lot of algae will give him a dark greenish hue.

Class: Reptilia
Order: Crocodylia (also includes crocodiles, caimans, and gharials)
Family: Alligatoridae
Genus: Alligator
Species: A. mississippiensis
Length: Average 13 feet (4 m) for males and 9 feet (3 m) for females
Diet: Everything from fish and birds to large mammals, such as deer
Habitat: Southeastern U.S., from Texas to southeast Virginia

Related Videos

Dan Breeding and Auggie the Alligator

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Footnotes

  1. For a fuller explanation of how “designs to kill” could still point to God as the designer, see Rick Oliver’s “Designed to Kill in a Fallen World” in Answers (July–September 2009), pp. 36–39.

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