ALLIGATOR BEHAVIOR page 2b:  SOCIAL SIGNALS AND BELLOWING 2
This page was born 12/27/2003.  Rickubis designed it.  (such as it is.) Last update: 11/29/2012
Images and contents on this page copyright 2001, 2012  Richard M. Dashnau 

Alligators, although they are ectothermic and also equipped with a small brain, exhibit a surprising diversity in their responses to their environment and to each other. They are for more complex than mere animated logs or 12-foot-long eating machines. This group of pages show some of what I've been able to see in just two years (starting September of 2001) at Brazos Bend State Park. 

November  03, 2002 Still ANOTHER cool, wet weekend!!!.  I'll just say here that the water is high throughout the park--higher than it's been for a long time.  The cold, rainy weather kept me from getting many pictures today.  However, over the week before, I finally decided to stop further attempts to recover more of the Alligator Gar bones, and work with what I had. I completed this, and built a case for it. I brought the spine to the park, where it was set behind the skull.  I left the park without taking any pictures of my two projects together! So, maybe next week.  For now, I'm going to relate something I saw a few weeks ago at the park. And besides, I'm sure everyone is asking: "Hey, Rick! What about the alligators?"
The picture YEP I'M CONFUSED (below) is a frame from a series of short video clips I shot with the Olympus C-700.
I was at New Horseshoe lake, and talking with some visitors about the fair-sized alligator floating near the center. There was a larger one on the far shore. As I was standing there...perhaps 30 minutes or so the larger alligator sort of "drifted" a little along the shoreline.  Then it started to move towards my left, still near the shoreline. As it did this, the smaller alligator (perhaps around 8-10 feet; the larger one was 10-12 feet) slowly turned and began moving towards the larger one. That's when I started filming, since I was sure the two alligators were aware of each other, and were moving *because* of each other.  As the two alligators neared each other, I started talking to the visitors, and was telling them of probable social signals we would see--that is, perhaps a snout raised, or the tail-arch and sunken back posture--that might signal submission or aggression.

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                  YEP, I'M CONFUSED                                             PUSH 1                                                     PUSH 2
However, as the alligators got even closer to each other, NONE of this happened. As far as I could see, there were no visible signals at all!
The smaller alligator "swam across the bow" of the larger one, it even seemed like there was a slight bump (PUSH 1, above), and then it swam in front (PUSH 2, above), and then turned towards the larger alligator and moved alongside (PUSH 3, below).  Finally.  the smaller alligator moved so its head was near the base of the larger one's tail, and the larger alligator moved away and towards the center of the lake (PUSH 4, below). It stopped after swimming about 20 feet away from the smaller alligator. It was almost as if the two alligators had exchanged guard positions. As in all non-violent interactions between alligators, the movements were slow and evenly-timed.

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                                                             PUSH 3                                                                          PUSH 4

  To see the 3 clips showing this interaction, click the following links: clip1(517 kb)  clip2(491 kb)  clip3(514 kb)

July 14, 2002  FINALLY, we've gotten some rain. This is not said to trivialize the flooding that has happened in other parts of Texas. However, my area, and Brazos Bend State Park, is actually about 11 inches less-than-normal for rainfall for this time of year. The park needed rain. This picture (MORNING VISITOR, above) shows a medium-sized (about 8-feet long) alligator that came ashore right in front of me at Elm Lake.  There was some activity this morning, with an unseen alligator doing two headslaps about 15 minutes apart (well, there were two headslaps, but possible from different alligators) not far from me; and some movement back and forth across the lake by a few other alligators. One crossed the trail about 75 yards from me,  too far away for a decent picture.  One of the large males made an appearance, but everything was pretty passive.  The following account may seem long, but I think it's interesting. It was to me, and this is my page, so there you are. I wanted to record this, anyway.
Wild rice is growing rapidly throughout the park, including the area in and around Elm Lake. I've been wondering about cutting some of it down, in order to give a clearer view of the lake.  One of the few advantages of the water levels dropping was that it would be easier to reach out further and cut through the rice at the water's edge.  I'd  planned to try to cut some of the rice this weekend, using a scythe.  Although it had rained, I figured that I'd try my original plan anyway, mostly to see how difficult this project would be. Unfortunately the higher water level meant that I'd be working in deeper water than I'd planned. 

   
              MY MORNING VISITOR

The first spot I cleared was not too difficult, and was completed without incident.  
I will take a moment to review some things I've mentioned on these pages about alligator behavior. A large part of alligator communication happens while the alligator is in the water.  Two particular signals are especially noticeable. These are the "headslap" and the "tail wash".  The former involves the alligator quickly raising its upper jaw out of the water, rapidly dropping its lower jaw under the water; and then quickly slapping its upper jaw down, making a loud pop/splash noise, which is sometimes accompanied by a grunt, or short bellow. The latter signal is the rapid side-to-side movement of the tail in the water, which makes loud splashing noised; and which is sometimes also joined by rapid movement of the alligator (from tail propulsion).  Both of these signals are loud, and relatively violent; and very noticeable, even by humans.  Both of these signals frequently cause alligators to respond; sometimes by leisurely investigation, sometimes by a more rapid movement towards the commotion, and sometimes by challenging behavior.  I've read this in various sources, and also observed some of this myself.

So, part of my plan for this rice project was to cut during the hot part of the day, after lunch, when the alligators have been scarce, that is,  hidden from view.  I assumed that most of them were near the islands, and otherwise hidden from the sun by staying in the water away from the trails. With the temperatures as warm as they had been, and with the receding water level, they probably were at optimum operating temperature for most of the day.  So, although I'd seen a few alligators in the morning, I didn't see any when I started cutting rice today, and didn't expect to. I was cutting near my second area, and as I worked, I noted that I was in deeper water than I wanted to be (up past my knees),  that visibility was poor (too much plant
life covering the water),  and that as I swung the scythe, it was hitting the water with loud splashing noises. I decided to work quickly, and was going to swing just a few more times. I swung, and splashed, and suddenly something large splashed
into the water across from me, about 20 yards away. I, in my hip-waders,  was out of the water before the last drops finished falling (I was being...discrete. Yeah, that's the ticket....).  I turned and looked back into the plants (this area has a
thick growth of water lilies) and saw a bow wave pushing the plants aside as something moved rapidly off to my left. Yes, it  was a pretty good-sized alligator, which stopped moving and looked at me.  Well, that was enough for me. I stopped working in that area and moved further down the trail. The next area I cut was without incident, but I worked within sight of one of the piers, where some visitors were standing. I figured anything moving towards me from their direction would get their attention, and I'd be alerted.  But, nothing happened.
Finally, I moved to the area where I saw the alligators earlier this morning. I did see one about 6 feet long about 30 yards from where I intended to work, but I drove the John Deere gator near it, and parked on the shore. I started working, and
after each 3 swings or so, I'd look around the lake.  I could not avoid the loud splashing as I entered the deeper (about 3 feet deep) water.  I looked up once, and there was my "friend" (the one I'd parked the Gator near), or one the same size,
about 20 feet away, and slowly approaching, while looking directly at me.  I've often noticed what an alligator looks like when its attention is on me.  Usually, I don't mind, and act with respect. When I am standing in the water (or near it, but
immobilized by vegetation), it can be unnerving.  I decided that my plan was not feasible at this time, especially not working alone. So, I slowly left the water, and I walked over to the last pier, where some park visitors were. I'd already pointed out for them the alligator approaching me, and when I joined the people on the pier, 3 more alligators appeared, and swam towards where I'd been working.  They stopped further away than the first one did (about 50, 70, and 80 feet away) and faced where I had been.  Two of them swam by the pier slowly, but with attention focused on my work area.  One came from behind ther first that had approached me and after a few minutes of slow movement towards the first alligator; actually chased it for a few minutes!  But nothing more happened between them. All of these alligators were close in size, between 6 and 8 feet long.  The large male I'd seen there this morning did not appear.  I decided I was finished with cooking myself in my hip-waders, and returned to my car.  Of course, since I was actually working in and near the water with a large implement,  I didn't have my camera on me, and so couldn't record any of this visually.
Lessons from this experience:  Don't splash in water known to be inhabited by alligators. Therefore, do not SWIM in water inhabited by alligators.  Even "smaller" alligators are not intimidated by the fact that I'm human, upright, and close to their
size once the proper stimuli (violent splashing) had been applied.  Even though the first alligator did seem to stop approaching when I stood back and faced it, showing that I was not an alligator, it stayed interested in the area, possibly looking for
more stimulus (splashing). The other alligators didn't seem to care what else was in the area. They were still interested in where I had been, even after I'd stopped for some time.

June 30, 2002  It had been raining all weekend. Not steadily, but enough to make things wet, and the air close and sticky. I hadn't been at the park very long, before it started raining on me. I was near the water station on Elm Lake Trail, and between that point and to about 75 yards past the first pier I saw 8 alligators lying still in the water. For at least 15 minutes, all the alligators were stationary, and facing the trail (see RAINY MORNING, below).  Two smaller alligators were very close to the shore, and one of them is the rickubiscam shot for this week. After this brief period of stillness-during which the rain paused for a short time-some of the alligators began moving around. There were two larger alligators (probably males) in the group.  Two of the midsize alligators (about 6 feet long) started moving first. The alligators slightly tilted their heads as they swam, showing their lips above the surface, but keeping the head almost horizontal. They also showed most of their upper back and tail as they moved at a leisurely pace. Eventually, all the alligators had scattered.

The rain finally stopped, around 10:00. I wandered the trails, which were clear of visitors, for a while.  Sometime later I, with a couple others, went to visit one of our new alligator nests. Alligators build nests during this month, and two have nested within easy sight of one of our most accessible trails; the Creekfield Trail.  The first nest is about 10 minutes' walk fromthe Visitor's Center, and close enough to be seen easily from the trail, yet far enough away from the trail for the mother to be undisturbed (and therefore not moved to vigoruously defend her nest).  Although we are far enough away from her nest, the female is definitely keeping an eye on us (see SHE'S WATCHING ME, below).  She is actually behind the nest (from the viewpoint of the trail). The nest is the pile of old grass and logs in front of her.  This female has put some pretty large pieces of wook into her nest. If her nest remains unharmed (unfortunately, there are many raccoons in the area she chose for her nest.), she will guard it for the 60 days required to incubate her eggs. This is one of the largest females-if not the largest-that I've seen at the park.  It's not possible to be 100-percent sure of an alligator's sex unless one does a physical examination (probe of the anal vent); but nest-guarding behavior is usually not shown by male American Alligators.

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                       RAINY MORNING                                     SHE'S WATCHING ME   ------  -                 WHAT A CUTIE!        ----            --------   THERE SHE GOES

June 02, 2002   This morning, I was on the trail by Elm Lake. I'd been watching two alligators that were close to shore. since I figured that they'd be crossing the trail soon (to enter Pilant Lake). They didn't.  However, I was talking to a family who were visiting the park, and talking about the two alligators. As I watched, the large male alligator I'd been watching raised it's back out of the water and neared shore. It had been totally submerged except for its head. I had the small group of people step back a little, so that he might exit the water (another couple of people happened to be passing by). We were watching the large male, when a young boy, about 4 or 5 years old, I guess, pointed BEHIND me, and said "LOOK AT THE ALLIGATOR!". I turned my head, and sure enough, there was one coming across the path. It stopped when it noticed us. (WHAT A CUTIE, above),  and rested for just a minute or so. Then it got up and crossed the trail. (THERE SHE GOES, above). I refer to it as "she" because it was smaller, and also because its head wasn't that massive. This alligator walked straight towards the large male which had been waiting in Elm Lake, and when she entered the water (almost walking onto the male), the male turned and swam off, and she followed.  Only afterwards did I realise that the male had raised its body out of the water at almost the same time that the female must have been walking towards the trail- - -from the other side, that is, from Pilant Lake. Remember, I'd thought that he was about to leave the water since he was showing more of his back and head.

May 25, 2002   I saw a little social interaction between some alligators this morning. A few alligators had gathered around the last pier on Elm Lake, mostly because they wanted to try to steal from the people fishing there. One of these was a large male, at least 10 feet long. As I watched, this male once leisurely swam over towards a smaller alligator (about 6 feet long) and caused it to move away. This was all done at a leisurely pace. Then, this male moved from where it had been for some time (30 to 60 minutes), and went around the bend of the lake. When it did, it encountered another alligator, about 8 feet long. The two alligators faced each other, from about 20 feet apart, for about 15 minutes.
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             FIRST CONFRONTATION                                MOVE ASIDE!                                BIG ONE MOVES PAST
After this time, the larger alligator (which I assumed was the one that "owned" this particular territory), slowly moved towards the smaller one(FIRST CONFRONTATION, ABOVE, or flv video 313kb). The 8- footer moved quickly towards the shore, and the large one stopped moving (MOVE ASIDE, ABOVE, or flv video 632kb). It seemed to drift past a bit (BIG ONE MOVES PAST, ABOVE), and slowly turned towards the smaller one, which "made a break" and swam with some haste away from-but close to- shore and around the bend, in the direction of the pier (BETTER PART OF VALOR, BELOW, or flv video 564 kb).
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      THE BETTER PART OF VALOR                               THIS IS *MY* DOMAIN!
 The large alligator began to pursue, that is, it increased speed briefly, then stopped. After this, it moved towards the shore, and assumed "bellowing position". It remained this way for a few minutes, and then performed a "short-bellow/headslap" (growl/headslap)(this sounds like a short, deep growl punctuated by a headslap, but review of the video shows a brief vibration of the back, as in bellowing. I believe that this vibration, combined with the headslap, must be detectable underwater for some distance)( MY DOMAIN, ABOVE, or flv video 634kb). After this, it remained at rest (no further display, no bobbing, no tail arch, no high flotation).

If you'd like to know more about the park follow these links:

Brazos Bend State Park   The main page.

Brazos Bend State Park Volunteer's Page  The volunteer's main page.

Here are a few links to more information on alligators. There's a LOT of it out there.

    Crocodilian.com

    Adam Britton's Pages 1

    Adam Britton's Pages 2

    Fish and Wildlife Page (Text)

    Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species

 Here are my "alligator behavior" pages:

SOCIAL INTERACTIONCONFLICT AND CANNIBALISMFEEDINGBABY ALLIGATORSALLIGATOR DENSALLIGATORS ON LANDFOSSIL CROCS
SIGNALS 1CONFLICT 1FEEDING 1BABIES 1DENS 1ON LAND 1FOSSILS 1
SIGNALS 2CONFLICT 2FEEDING 2BABIES 2ON LAND 2
SIGNALS 3CONFLICT 3FEEDING 3BABIES 3ON LAND 3
SIGNALS 4FEEDING 4BABIES 4ON LAND 4
SIGNALS 5FEEDING 5BABIES 5ON LAND 5
SIGNALS 6FEEDING 6BABIES 6ON LAND 6
SIGNALS 7
ON LAND 7
SIGNALS 8

And, this page shows alligators at the park, on land, near various landmarks at the park.

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