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American Alligator
(Alligator mississippiensis)

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The female builds a nest of vegetation, sticks, leaves, and mud in a sheltered spot in or near the water. After she lays her 20 to 50 white, goose-egg-sized eggs, she covers them under more vegetation, which, like mulch, heats as it decays, helping to keep the eggs warm. She remains near the nest throughout the 65- day incubation period, protecting the nest from intruders. When the young begin to hatch they emit a high-pitched croaking noise, and the female quickly digs them out.

The young, which are tiny replicas of adult alligators with a series of yellow bands around their bodies, then find their way to water. For several days they continue to live on yolk masses within their bellies.

Alligators reach breeding maturity at about 8 to 13 years of age, at which time they are about 6 to 7 feet long. From then on, growth continues at a slower rate. Old males may grow to be 14 feet long and weigh up to 1,000 pounds during a lifespan of 30 or more years.

Historically, alligators were depleted from many parts of their range as a result of market hunting and loss of habitat, and 30 years ago many people believed this unique reptile would never recover. In 1967, the alligator was listed as an endangered species (under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973), meaning it was considered in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

Closeup of wild Alligator swimming.

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But a combined effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies in the South saved these unique animals. The Endangered Species Act prohibited alligator hunting, allowing the species to rebound in numbers in many areas where it had been depleted. As the alligator began to make a comeback, states established alligator population monitoring programs and used this information to ensure alligator numbers continued to increase. In 1987, the Fish and Wildlife Service pronounced the American alligator fully recovered and consequently removed the animal from the list of endangered species.

Although the American alligator is secure, some related animals -- such as several species of crocodiles and caimans -- are still in trouble. For this reason, the Fish and Wildlife Service still regulates the legal trade in alligator skins, or products made from them, in order to protect these endangered animals with skin that is similar in appearance, but illegal in the commercial market.

The story of the American alligator is one of both drastic decline and complete recovery, it is a story of state and federal cooperation, and it is truly one of the prominent success stories of the nation's endangered species program.

Alligator searching for food at the waters edge.

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