What We Have Learned
Movement & Behavior
- Most of the time males move more and maintain larger territories relative to females. This is because males must find and compete for ladies and those ladies have to find and defend nesting habitat.
- Ex. Johnny Hickox (male) moves throughout the entire park, but Audrey Laine (female) rarely leaves Skull Lake.
- Not all male alligators occupy a large territory.
- It is not uncommon for alligators to move large distances, a mile or more, in a matter of hours or days.
- Ex. Kitty (female) has been observed to move more than a mile in single day and Okefenokee Joe (male) have been observed to move more than three miles, from the front of the park into the refuge in one day.
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- Alligators come and go from place to place, and season to season, which we call “movement patterns.”
- Ex. Okefenokee Joe (male) spends a month or so at the front of the park then a month or so out in the refuge and then he returns to the front of the park. Cypress (female) spends the warmer months patrolling green river then retreats into the denser parts of the swamp during the cold months.
- Alligators move in and out of the park all the time.
- Some alligators that were tagged and seen regularly at first have not been sighted in a year. Every spring we see new alligators that have not been seen before.
- Ex. We met Laura Walker (female) for the first time in 2019 and tagged her in 2020. A lot of this has to do with competition as alligators are not accepted into a population as adults until they can compete their way into an open “niche.”
- Water levels play a large role in alligator movement.
- When water level is low there are not as many places for an alligator to move and hide. Therefore, when water levels are high, alligators (particularly small ones!) can disperse throughout the swamp and become really difficult to spot!
- Ex. In 2020, it was very difficult to spot the alligators we had tagged and could track, let alone the small ones that camouflage so well.
- Each alligator is unique and has different behaviors, traits, and personalities.
- Ex. Cypress (female) really doesn’t like the motorboats and will disappear as soon as she hears one, but may stick around out of curiosity if you are in a canoe or kayak.
- Some alligators are more territorial than others, particularly the dominant males and females in each population.
- Ex. Sally (female) is very protective of her territory and even guards against certain males from entering her territory.
- Alligators know which territory is whose and who they should avoid.
- Ex. Only two adult alligators have ever been regularly observed in Skull Lake: Obadiah (male) and Audrey Laine (female).
- It takes a while for a male to establish his dominance, and he must earn it.
- Ex. Crazy, the former alpha male, was put into captivity because he had been deemed a nuisance alligator in 2018. There were territory disputes between the two largest males (Okefenokee Joe and Obadiah) for two years after this event.
- Some females mate with multiple males, and some only mate with one.
- Ex. Sally (female) only mated with Crazy (male), based on what we have observed. It took Sally two years to accept another mate and reproduce following Crazy being put into captivity.
- Females do not nest every year.
- Ex. Sally and Lydia did not reproduce in 2020. Producing eggs and raising a pod of 20-60 hatchlings also takes a lot of energy and sometimes mom’s need a break!
- Females build large nests out of mud sticks and grass that measure several feet wide and nearly two feet tall.
- Ex. Sally and Lydia (both female) both have multiple nests from previous seasons that are visible from the main boat loop.
- Females bury their eggs in the nest to regulate their temperature.
- If temperatures get too hot or too dry, females will urinate on their nest to help regulate the temperature.
- This also serves as a deterrent to predators.
- Females maintain the nest throughout the incubation period by adding or removing material.
- Ex. When Sally (female) nests she can be seen coming and going by our game cameras as she takes care of her nest.
- Female alligators will adopt young that are not their own, but we think this is uncommon.
- Ex. In 2019, Sally (female) did not nest but was seen raising young.
- Unlike many reptilians, female alligators are very good parents.
- They defend the nest.
- Mothers will help the young out of the nest during and after hatching.
- Mothers will care for their young for the first several years of their life, often tending to multiple generations at one time.
- Ex. You have to be careful during nesting season not to get too close to Sally’s nest because she becomes very protective of her babies and will defend it against humans.
- Alligators have different tolerances for people.
- Ex. Sally lives in the park and is used to people and thus is not as scared of them. Ex. Lydia is hardly ever seen by people because she submerges as soon as they appear.
- Water level plays a huge role in nest and resource selection.
- When water level is high, they have more room to spread out and forage. When water levels are low, more alligators congregate into the areas that still have water and may even hunt together. It can also be more difficult for females to locate dry nesting ground during times of high water.
- Ex. When there is a lot of water the fish also have more room to roam making them harder to catch.
All photos by University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, unless otherwise noted.