Alligator moms keep hatchlings safe till they reach the top of the food chain.
On a hot summer day, there’s a small chirping sound coming from the alligator’s nest at Brazos Bend State Park. The female alligator begins to dig into her nest — hatching time!
With her large mouth full of sharp teeth, she ever-so-gently grabs an egg from her nest, takes it near the water and crunches it just enough to crack the shell without harming her young. Mama places the new hatchling into the water and returns to the nest for the next egg.
As fearsome as they might look, female alligators have an incredible maternal instinct.
Starting in June, they build their nests, gathering mud, sticks and plant matter to create a mound. The mother will lay, on average, 35 eggs that will hatch at the end of August.
Unlike birds, the mother alligator does not sit on her nest to keep it warm. Alligators are ectothermic, or “cold-blooded,” meaning they rely on the heat of their environment to regulate their body temperatures; they don’t have the heat to provide to their nests. Instead, the nest acts like a compost pile, kept warm by the heat generated from the decaying vegetation.
The temperature of the eggs will determine the sex of the hatchlings — cooler temperatures will produce females and warmer temperatures produce males.
At birth, hatchlings measure 6 to 8 inches long; at this point, they make an easy meal for any other animal around. Predators include other alligators, birds, raccoons, snakes and larger fish — many of the animals that, in turn, will make up the alligator’s diet if it grows to maturity.
The mother alligator stays nearby and vigilant, ready to protect her hatchling from predators, but only two or three will make it to adulthood.
Hatchlings stay with their mother for up to three years for protection. They are responsible for finding their own food.
The young alligators will grow about one foot a year. When they reach 6 feet in length, they become adults and are mature enough to reproduce. Now, they are the top of the food chain and the cycle starts all over again.
Bella Lataste | ouh la la photography
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