Q: Do we have alligators in North Carolina?
A: Yes. Our more southern counties have the largest populations; however, alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) have been seen as far north as the Great Dismal Swamp near the Virginia border. It’s also likely they have ventured into Virginia’s wetlands. Alligators living in the waters around the USS North Carolina battleship in Wilmington have become something of a tourist attraction.
Once hunted to near extinction, these ancient reptiles were listed as endangered in 1967. They have made a remarkable comeback. In 1987 their status was downgraded to threatened, and even though their numbers have increased dramatically, they remain protected to prevent trafficking of look-alike reptiles such as the American crocodile. Today, populations are believed to total more than five million from the Carolinas to Texas, but habitat loss and pollution remain concerns.
These aquatic giants are extremely adaptable and can live in brackish marshes, bayous, bogs, swamps, creeks, ponds, lakes, canals, ditches, backwaters and large rivers. As carnivores and opportunistic predators, they feed on almost anything that moves – frogs, snakes, birds, fish, turtles, lizards, other alligators, small mammals and larger prey such as deer. They can replace any of their 70-80 cone-shaped teeth when lost, resulting in a total of 2,000-3,000 potential teeth in a lifetime. They are good swimmers, have excellent eyesight and sense of smell and an average lifespan of 35 to 50 years.
Alligators are cold-blooded and can’t tolerate extreme temperatures. To warm up they bask in the sun. In winter they retire to dens that are usually accessed under water. They are fairly slow-moving on land, but don’t be fooled. They can travel quickly for short distances.
To ambush prey, alligators lurk near the shoreline and lunge with lightning speed to capture unsuspecting quarry along the water’s edge. They are known for their “death roll,” pulling and drowning their victim under water before ingesting it whole or in large chunks.
Alligators easily lose their fear of humans and feeding them or any wild animal endangers both the animal and people. In North Carolina, feeding alligators is illegal and carries a fine up to $200.
Alligators are protected as a threatened species under federal law. Some states, however, are authorized to manage and control populations. In North Carolina, hunting or killing alligators is illegal. Only state wildlife officials are allowed to intervene or remove problem animals. For a map of known alligator occurrences in North Carolina visit http://www.fws.gov/nc-es/reptile/alligat.html.
Discover more fascinating facts about North Carolina’s aquatic animals and environments by visiting the aquariums on Roanoke Island, at Fort Fisher and at Pine Knoll Shores, or Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head.
Cutline: Alligators can be found in many of North Carolina’s wetland areas. State wildlife officials are allowed to remove problem animals if they become a threat to human populations. (Photo courtesy of Rick Haas)
Information provided by the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. The state operates three public aquariums; one in Pine Knoll Shores, another at Fort Fisher and a third on Roanoke Island, as well as Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. The facilities are administered by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and are designed to inspire appreciation and conservation of North Carolina’s aquatic environments. For more information, log onto ncaquariums.com, or call 800-832-FISH.