Alligators are primarily carnivores, but alligators have been known to eat a wide variety of other food sources when given the opportunity. For example, investigations of dead alligators have revealed that they also eat fruits like elderberries, citrus fruits and wild grapes, directly from trees that overhang over their habitats. What each alligator eats depends largely on three main factors: the size and the age of the alligator, the size and availability of the prey, and the habitat where it lives. They will often feed on fish, crustaceans, invertebrates, turtles, snakes, birds and mammals.
Alligator hatchlings will generally feed on insects and their larvae, worms, spiders and snails. As they grow up, alligators will progressively move on to larger prey. Adolescent alligators will hunt turtles, larger fish, and small mammals like muskrats, raccoons and others animals that can be found at the water’s edge. They will catch fledgling birds as well.
Adult alligators will prey on any aquatic resident and any animal that comes to the water or the water’s edge. Alligators will usually seek prey that is much smaller than they are. However, if given the opportunity, they will attack larger prey too. Muskrats and raccoons are among the some of the mammals that American alligators prey on. Alligators also catch water birds like herons, storks, egrets and water fowl. Their prey may also include snakes, water monitors and other lizards. Nutrias are one of the alligator’s favorite preys. That is because they live on aquatic roots and alligators find it easy to ambush them.
Chinese alligators are smaller in size than their American counterparts and prey on fish, birds and small mammals. They have also targeted domesticated ducks which almost cost them their existence. People started killing them because they were considered as pests and their meat was a bonus. Another reason that they were almost exterminated was that people left poisoned rats as a means of killing the crocodilians.
Alligators will also attack and kill domesticated animals like dogs, goats and calves when the opportunity provides itself. Though they shy away from humans, there have been many instances when alligators have attacked and killed humans. These attacks mostly take place when humans are squatting at the water’s edge and the alligator mistakes it for a small animal. An alligator will also attack humans when cornered or threatened.
American alligators are both diurnal and nocturnal animals, which means that they are active throughout the day and evening. Aquatic animals and fish form a large part of the alligator’s diet and will be hunted either during the day or the night. But alligators also prowl the shores of their habitat. They will hunt for up to 50 meters from the shore, and will do so usually after darkness sets in, and when the temperatures are warmer.
If an alligator is hungry enough, it will eat nearly anything, including carrion (i.e., the decaying flesh of dead animals). Adult alligators are also prone to cannibalizing on other newborn or juvenile crocodiles. Alligators have even been seen enjoying marshmallows fed to them during swamp tours in Louisiana.
Top of the food chain
Though large animals are not on the regular menu of alligators, they are not averse to ambushing a feral wild boar or a large deer when they come to the water’s edge. The modus operandi for this bigger prey is to surprise them, drag them under water and drown them. Alligators will aggressively seek larger prey when their usual dietary supply of small fish and other small aquatic animals start to go down.
Alligators are known to have devoured bobcats, black bears and Florida panthers. Black bears live at higher altitudes, and preying on them prove that alligators are more tolerant of colder climates than are crocodiles. The panthers have been attacked most often while trying to cross the water. Alligators are the only known predators of the Black Panther and that puts them at the top of the food chain.
Alligator’s arsenal and tools
Alligators like crocodiles have powerful jaws that help them crack a turtle’s shell or break a small size animal bone. Alligators usually have 74 to 80 teeth which are continuously replaced as they wear off. An alligator may, in its life span have gone through 2000 to 3000 teeth. Alligators have teeth that are meant for grabbing and not for chewing. They swallow whatever they bite. The regular replacement of teeth helps them feed themselves throughout their lives.
An interesting fact about American alligators is that they have been observed to use tools. They balance branches and twigs on their head to lure birds that seek material for building their nests and trap them. In the bird nesting season, this trick makes sure that the alligator will get more than an occasional bird kill. The use of tools to secure a meal has been observed for the first time in reptiles and is also used by the mugger crocodile that is prevalent in the Indian sub-continent.