There is such an abundance of life on St. Catherines Island, that twenty-eight weeks is hardly enough time to write about everything. Now that my time here is growing short, I find I’m having to pick and choose my favorites (and I admit I’ve been saving some good ones). Even if one were to keep strictly to our plant life, it would take ages to catalog all of the species here. It’s this lush landscape that awes newcomers - especially those coming in from the harsh cityscape of Atlanta - even before they see the lemurs. On more than one occasion during my tenure here, I’ve heard a person exclaim, “I feel like I’m in Jurassic Park." As lovely as St. Cats is, it’s no Hawaii, where the movie was filmed (I’ve seen the site from a helicopter). There is a creature here, however, that does look like it crawled right out of the Jurassic period.
The American alligator - or Alligator mississippiensis - is one of two species of alligator still left on Earth. The only other species of alligator - Alligator sinensis - lives all the way over in China. They both evolved around 80 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period (that’s after the Jurassic). So, from a certain point of view, I live with dinosaurs. Not counting humans, alligators are certainly the island’s apex predator. This holds true for much of the alligator’s range. In Florida, they have been known to eat dogs, panthers, and even black bears. It’s in Louisiana where they thrive the most though, helping out the local ecosystem by munching on nutria and muskrat, which are literally devouring the coastline. Alligators dig burrows when the weather turns cold, which not only helps with plant diversity but gives other animals shelter when they’ve been abandoned by the large reptiles. On St. Catherines, I usually sight alligators in the marsh. They have been known to go for a swim on the Atlantic side of the island, but because they lack the special gland that sea turtles have which lets them metabolize saltwater, they don’t stay out in the ocean for very long.
The alligators, like the dolphins, never fail to make me smile when I see them, unintentionally mimicking their toothy grin. The first time I witnessed a gator outside of a zoo was just over a year ago, when I went to Sapelo Island. It was nighttime and I only glimpsed them in the form of a series of shining eyes, glowing at me from the direction of a creek. A few days later, on Jekyll Island (even further south along Georgia’s coastline) I was treated to the sounds of male gators bellowing as they swam in a lake near where my class was marking turtles for rerelease. Their deep, resonant booms were certainly intimidating. Male gators also signal to others using infrasound (too low for human hearing, but we can feel it physically). That trip was back in May of last year, about the time when alligators are looking for mates.
These large reptiles become sexually mature at about ten years old, when they’ve reached a length of six feet. Once the females are ready to lay their eggs, they make a big nest - about ten feet by three feet - and lay anywhere from thirty-five to fifty eggs. Alligators, like nearly all reptiles, are cold-blooded, so they don’t generate heat to keep the eggs warm. Instead, they build the nest out of vegetation that releases heat when it decomposes. Temperature affects alligator eggs the same way as gopher tortoise eggs, by determining sex. On average, there are about five female hatchlings for every one male and when they pop out of the eggs, they are each about six to eight inches long. They’re so adorable, I have to resist the urge to wade in and try to catch one. But, mom is likely close by, because female alligators will look after their offspring for up to a year after they’re born.
When I see the adults, they usually just slip silently into the water and swim in the other direction. They’re not particularly aggressive, so I’m not particularly afraid of them, but I wouldn’t want to get between mom and her babies. Adult alligators can have up to eighty teeth in their mouths at once and when they lose teeth, they’re replaced over and over again. That means one gator can have about three thousand teeth in its lifetime. It’s a good thing that alligators don’t usually look at humans as food - unless we’re feeding them. As with most wild animals, feeding them is a really bad idea, and usually when people and animals end up getting hurt. That’s why it’s illegal to feed them in Florida. In South Carolina, it’s illegal to relocate them. They’ve been known to travel up to a hundred miles to get back where they started from. That travel too, brings dangerous encounters with people, sadly ending with the alligator being killed by authorities. Otherwise, a gator’s natural lifespan is around fifty years.
Several weeks ago, someone asked me what my favorite animal on the island was. Of course, my answer was, "lemurs." But, if I had to choose a second, the alligators would rank quite highly. I've always liked the misunderstood animals that people take for granted; bats, snakes, spiders, crows, and black cats. Despite being large predators (there was once a fifteen foot beast on the island) with powerful jaws and muscular tails, they don't go in search of trouble. On the other hand, they're so deliciously sinister, the way they can slip their scaly bulk into the water with hardly a sound and watch - eyes and nostrils the only features breaking the surface - from just a few yards off shore. It's a design of evolution that I have to respect; so perfect that it hasn't changed for millions of years. Whenever I look at their bony backs and clawed toes, I am suddenly back in prehistory, gazing at a dinosaur.