Study Reveals Alligators Will Do Anything For A Tasty Morsel — Even Venture Into Salty Waters!

By on

CCSS NAS-3 Word Search
Amercian Alligator chows down nurse shark in Florida (Photo Credit US Fish and Wildlife Service)

The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is known to be a crafty and fierce predator that devours anything it can snare. However, given that the reptile lacks salt glands, scientists had always believed that its diet was restricted to the fish and crustaceans that dwell in its freshwater habitat. Now, a new study suggests that the opportunistic beasts also gobble down saltwater inhabitants like crabs, sea turtles, stingrays, and even sharks.

James Nifong, an ecologist at Kansas State University who has been studying the alligators’ diet for nine years, stumbled upon this discovery when he captured a female gator with a young Atlantic stingray in her jaws. Since then, he and wildlife biologist Russell Lowers have documented three separate instances of alligators preying on a lemon shark, a nurse shark, and a bonnethead shark. While the stingrays and sharks, which ranged from two-feet to four-feet long, were small, the researchers speculate that larger alligators might be attacking bigger sharks as well. Also, the preying is not a one-way street – sharks have been observed eating American alligators as well. Nifong says, “Both are known for their extreme eating habits, and both are highly opportunistic predators. So, when presented with a potential opportunity to feed, they are not likely to pass it up.”

Alligator with bonnethead shark in Hilton SC (Photo Credit: Chris Cox)

The scientists say despite their different habitats, sharks and rays frequently share the water with alligators. The saltwater inhabitants often swim into the freshwater, while the reptiles are resourceful enough to survive in the brackish estuarine waters for short periods of time if a tasty morsel is in sight. According to Nifong, “Alligators seek out fresh water in high-salinity environments. When it rains really hard, they can actually sip fresh water off the surface of the salt water. That can prolong the time they can stay in a saltwater environment."

Adam Rosenblatt, an ecologist at the University of North Florida, believes the reason it took so long for researchers to discover the reptiles’ saltwater diet is that both alligators and sharks are hard to track and observe in the wild. Since the gators eat smaller sharks, their prey could also easily be mistaken for fish. The expert says it is also difficult to find evidence of sharks or stingrays in the reptiles’ stomachs because “most prey gators eat turn to mush pretty quickly within their stomachs. It all turns into one big pile of indistinguishable stuff, except for certain body parts like hair and shells.” Nifong, who has examined the guts of over 500 alligators and never found any evidence, agrees with this theory.

Though the gator’s dietary range is undoubtedly impressive, the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Southeastern Naturalist in October 2017, unveils a more significant finding — the ecological impact of the reptiles’ regular trips between fresh and salty waters. Nifong says as they move between the two habitats, the gators help transport nutrients from the rich marine waters to the fresh waters. Since the phenomenon occurs in gator habitats across the US southeast, the researcher believes it has a big effect on estuarine food webs — information that is very helpful when planning for conservation efforts.

Resources: sciencenews.org,nationalgeographic.com, phys.org

Generate citations in MLA, APA & Chicago formats for this article.

VocabularyPlay Game

brackishconservationcraftycrustaceansdevoursecologicalecologisthabitatindistinguishableinhabitantsmorselnutrientsopportunisticpredatorprolongrestrictedsnarespeculateundoubtedly
Name:
Date:

Reading Comprehension (10 questions)

  1. Why had researchers believed alligators only ate freshwater marine animals?
  2. What has a new study revealed?
Name:
Date:

Critical Thinking Challenge

When sharks and alligators encounter each other, what factor do you...

Name:
Date:

Vocabulary in Context

“The saltwater inhabitants often swim into the freshwater, while the reptiles are resourceful enough to survive in the brackish estuarine waters for short periods of time...

510 Comments
Sign in to use your custom avatar.
  • UnicornTuesday, September 11, 2018 at 3:53 pm
    That is how life works
    • yeaThursday, September 6, 2018 at 10:14 am
      alligators are my favorite animals, they are so cool
      • jyThursday, September 6, 2018 at 9:08 am
        cool story
        • coolWednesday, September 5, 2018 at 10:18 am
          #this is realea cool!!!!!
          • alligatorsTuesday, September 4, 2018 at 10:54 am
            they...are...BEAST
            • thebooger
              theboogerWednesday, August 29, 2018 at 12:32 pm
              Its the way of Nature.
              • phillipMonday, August 27, 2018 at 8:13 am
                that is so cool
                • ajg15
                  ajg15Sunday, August 26, 2018 at 1:41 pm
                  Wow an alligator eating a shark 😮
                  • kittensarecute
                    kittensarecuteSunday, August 26, 2018 at 9:21 am
                    Oh so sad😭 but cool at the same time!!!😅
                    • hulksmasher21Thursday, May 24, 2018 at 10:25 am
                      nice article I like animals

                      Recent Comments

                      Ntab7122 wrote:

                      I really want to go on one of th...
                      Eco-Friendly Airlander 10 Will S...

                      Purplee wrote:

                      How to make a new shape: "Now k...
                      Introducing The Scutoid — A Newl...

                      Our Apps and Plugins

                      Awards

                      ALA