The American alligator is a fearsome and iconic species found in the southeastern waterways of the US. For those that live in these areas, this massive reptile is just another native species in the ecosystem. However, people outside of the region can struggle to imagine life with an alligator in the vicinity. What makes this more fascinating is that the alligator is more widespread than we often realize.
American alligators live in southeastern states such as Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and the Carolinas. Their home range is approximately 2 miles, and they live in freshwater lakes and swamps. Alligators need a good supply of food but can feed every five days.
So, where can you find American alligators? What is their range, and what habitat do they live in? Let’s look at this in some more detail.
Which States Do Alligators Live In?
There is a common association between American alligators and Florida’s swamp and the Everglades, but they are found over a much more extensive range. They are the official state reptile of Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi and are typically seen as far north as North Carolina and out towards the Rio Grands in Texas. However, Florida is their stronghold, with around 1.3 million alligators in the state in 2018.
Another interesting thing about their range is that we are seeing a natural expansion further north as they expand their territories. Since 2018, there have been sightings in West Tennessee. Depending on the opportunities provided, there may even be the potential for them to go further. Young alligators will seek out territories with the right temperature, habitat, and prey sources. These areas may be colder, but brumation in the winter allows them to survive.
The American alligator doesn’t need much space for a large animal. A male will have a territory of only around two square miles. There is no need for more as they aren’t that active. They may extend that range in the breeding season to find mates, but they rely on infrasound to attract females rather than roaming and wasting energy to seek them out. Therefore, they don’t need a big area. That is why you can find so many of them in the many lakes across the southeastern states.
American alligators make their homes in swamps, rivers, and other areas of slow-moving water. Alligators are a common sight in southern states where you find freshwater lakes and swamps. Florida has around 30,000 freshwater lakes, and there is an excellent chance of seeing alligators in them if the conditions are right. Lake Kissimmee State Park near Orlando has a fantastic amount.
Elsewhere, alligators will make their territories in rivers, brackish marshes, and other areas with slow-moving water. The temperatures and wetlands in the Carolinas are still suitable despite their distance from the Everglades’ more usual sites.
Freshwater is essential because alligators can only tolerate salt water for a short time. Brackish water in swamps and mashes is tolerable, but they can’t go further for long periods. They also need these freshwater areas to be deep and calm, where they can wait for prey and pull it under the water to drown it.
In addition to using extensive stretches of water to feed, alligators will create their water holes in swamps. These small pools provide a constant water source where they can cool off and maybe even attract some prey. These secure pools also make great nurseries for hatchlings during the breeding season before they head into deeper waters.
You may have seen videos on YouTube of alligators on golf courses. If a golf course has the right conditions to sustain an alligator, then there is no reason why they wouldn’t be there. These incidents on golf courses and in more residential areas show that alligators are much more used to humans than we think. They have no problem coming closer to homes and urban areas if it will benefit them.
This relates to the recent expansion north. Young alligators pushed out of territories by adults must find their place in an overpopulated state. It isn’t uncommon to see videos of alligators casually strolling across roads in retirement complexes that happen to be close to a lake.
Mudbanks and Vegetation
When alligators choose the best sites for their ranges, it isn’t just about the water quality. They also rely on mudbanks and the vegetation available. This is one of the main reasons they have a preference for swamps.
A good mudbank gives them somewhere where they can create water holes with great ease. They also provide the opportunity to make dens and offer a nice spot to stretch in the sun. This is essential for the alligators to maintain their body temperature. They rely on the sun’s rays to warm them up and get them active as cold-blooded reptiles. This is why if you see alligators in the wild, they are often either hiding under the water or statuesque on the side of the lake.
Suitable habitat is one with access to plenty of prey like snakes, fishes, birds, and small mammals. Alligators can lie in wait in the water and strike at anything that gets too close, rolling it over into the water to drown it. Anything that comes too close and is an easy target is worth the effort.
A large mammal, like a cow or adult deer, could keep the alligator well-fed for a long time. They don’t need to hunt that often, eating every five days on average, which is another reason Florida’s lakes can sustain so many individuals.
The American alligator is well-suited to the southeast and is constantly adapting. Alligators can seem exotic and out-of-place creatures to anyone not from the southeastern states. However, they are ideally suited to the temperatures and habitats provided by the waterways and swamps of this region.
The freshwater lakes and marshes are ideal for hunting, breeding, and easy-going life. This suitability, and the adaptability to more urban environments, means that the range of the American alligator could spread even further in years to come.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.