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.09/30/2007As I was walking downhill towards 40acre lake, I heard alligators bellowing from somewhere in front of me. They sounded like bellows from females. I met another park volunteer, and he told me that he had just seen the mother alligator bellowing. So, that was probably the one I'd heard closest to me. I examined the babies and the mother. The babies were scattered in the water and along the shoreline, in an area about 20 feet long. While I tried to get some pictures of the babies, a large alligator swam from my left(from the northwest) midway between the trail I was on and the islands. It stopped behind the female, but still in the deep water.
about 15 minutes, the larger alligator began swimming towards the area
containing the babies, but seemed to be heading towards a point that would
bring it about 8 feet to the side of the female alligator. It swam
a a leisurely pace. Most of its back was showing, as well as the
upper surface of the tail. It stopped
about 6 feet from the bank.
swam out to meet the larger alligator. It moved slowly, but with intent.
As it neared the larger alligator, the larger one lowered its back. This
caused slight elevation of the tip of the nose.
kept swimming directly towards the side of the big alligator's snout. As
the female got within 12 inches from the male's snout, the large alligator
raised its back again. When the female got to touching distance, the larger
raised its head, and gently rested its chin on the female's snout. Then
it slowly pushed forward--pushing the female's head from the side with
his lower jaw. It moved forward more until the center of its lower jaw
was on the back of the female's skull. The larger began the bobbing motion
characteristic of a bellow. As it did, it moved forward until its chest
was over the female's back (the two bodies were nearly perpendicular to
each other). Then it pushed down--possibly standing on the female with
its forelegs--and began bellowing.
the bellow, all but the tip of the female's snout was left visible at the
surface of the water. She remained motionless. That is, she didn't try
to escape from under the male alligator. The male bellowed 3 more times,
with the bobbing. During all the motion, the female's nose was also briefly
pushed under the water. After the last bellow, the male relaxed, although
his mouth opened in a narrow gape. This is all shown in video
clip 1 (wmv 16.5 mb).
bottom of his closed jaws slowly lowered into the water, a brief spurt
of bubbles was expelled from the female's snout. These broke the surface
about 4 inches from the male's head. Her snout broke the surface,
submerged, and then a stream of bubbles broke the surface of the water,
making it appear that she might have been moving her head from side to
side. Slight movements of the male alligator indicated that the female
was probably changing position slightly. 6 Further streams of bubbles appeared,
without the female surfacing in between. There was a pause of 4-10 seconds
between each burst of bubbles. After the last stream, there was a pause
of about 10 seconds and the female's head surfaced as she apparently had
pulled it out from under the male. Her head was covered with mud
and plant matter, so apparently she had been pushed into the lake bottom.
Movement during all of this was very slow.
The female shifted forward with the base of her lower jaw pressing against the nose of the male. She pushed hard enough to shift the male back a couple inches. Then, she lifted her snout and placed it atop the male's. Then she pushed his snout under the water. The male did not seem to resist this. While his back was still high in the water, he moved backwards about a foot by floating and sliding out from under her snout. The female submerged. This is all shown invideo clip 2 (wmv 17.5 mb).
near the male's snout again, whereupon she moved towards him and slid her
bottom jaw, staring at the point, up over the front edge of his snout.
She pushed, but slid off, moving forward past the tip of his nose. She
stopped with the back of her head just past the front of his nose. There
was a pause. She submerged again. the male's body shifted as she contacted
it under water. She surfaced again at the tip of his snout, with
her face pointing the other way. She'd turned around. There was another
The male turned his head slightly, and when he did, the female turned her head and placed the side of her upper jaw against the tip of his nose and pressed briefly. Then, after another press, she submerged. Her head resurfaced near the male's right leg, then she submerged again, blowing bubbles. This is all shown in video clip 3 (wmv 16 mb).
more bubbles, then just the tip of her nose resurfaced, pointing away from
the male. The snout moved towards the male, and she pressed against the
male with the side of her snout twice more. Her head surfaced, pointing
away from the male. She turned towards the male, and pushed him again,
this time using the front of her body, as her head went over his submerged
back. After this, she submerged once more, and reappeared close
to the bank again. This is all shown invideo
clip 4 (wmv 14 mb).
The male remained where he was. He stayed in the vicinity, without moving far, for about 30 minutes more. Then he moved off.
The entire exchange took about 11 minutes. Although this took relatively little time, many signals were broadcast and recieved by both alligators. I thought the way the female approached the male was also significant. In my experience, female alligators will often approach a percieved threat to her offspring with caution and/or stealth. I feel that she is evaluating the location and size of the threat. If she can, she will first get between the threat and the babies. Then, as in this example, she will attempt to threaten or push the interloper away. This is far from most peoples' perception of the fierce female alligator protecting her young. Rather than wasting energy and exposing herself to possible harm by rushing noisily at an intruder (which at first may seem to be the obvious plan), she saves her energy and prevents possible injury by advancing slowly. In this particular case, advancing quickly towards what might be a dominant, larger male might have cause her severe injury or death.
As soon as she advanced, the male pushed her snout under water and bellowed. Both of these are ways to assert dominance. The female submitted to this.
However, after the submission, she stayed near the male and--by performing movements associated with mating behavior--began to assert her needs upon the male. She pushed on the male, but from a submissive position. By using her snout against the male's snout, and then later against his body, she eventually succeeded in pushing the male away from the shore.
I have been able to read some studies of alligator social signals, particularly: Courtship Behavior of American Alligators, by Kent A. Vliet, Ph. D.--in pages 383-408 of Crocodilian Biology and Evolution edited by Gordon C. Grigg, Frank Seebacher, and Craig E. Franklin; Pub. Feb 2001. ; Social Displays of the American Alligator by Kent A. Vliet in Amer. Zool., 29:1019-1031 (1989); Social Signals of Adult American Alligators by Garrick, Lang, and Herzog in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History Vol. 160:Article 3 1978. Reading these works has allowed me cross reference some of these behaviors. Sometimes there is mention of "blowing bubbles" in a social context, but without any clear suggestion as to any meaning. Considering that alligators can sense pressure waves via the sensory dots on their snouts, then the "burbling" of the water caused by a stream of bubbles would probably be sensed by the alligator. In this instance, the female may have been indicating her position or acknowledging the male's position (directly over her) by blowing the streams of bubbles.
The head of the alligator--particularly the edges of the jaws--are used for gentle physical contact during mating, with the edges of the jaws of one alligator used to touch various parts of the head and neck of the other alligator. Sometimes these touches can escalate into "pressing" movements which can be a demonstration or test of strength. During mating, these behaviors can lead to the reproductive act. Here, though, the mating season was long over.
It seems to me that either the female was using mating behavior to allow her to approach the male; or that the observed actions are part of a broader scheme of communication and that some of the signals also happen to be used during courtship.
Alligators, although they may seem to move slowly most of the time, can show a wide range of communication if one has the patience to view their world in "alligator time".
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.
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 INTERACTION||CONFLICT AND CANNIBALISM||FEEDING||BABY ALLIGATORS||ALLIGATOR DENS||ALLIGATORS ON LAND||FOSSIL CROCS|
|SIGNALS 1||CONFLICT 1||FEEDING 1||BABIES 1||DENS 1||ON LAND 1||FOSSILS 1|
|SIGNALS 2||CONFLICT 2||FEEDING 2||BABIES 2||ON LAND 2|
|SIGNALS 3||CONFLICT 3||FEEDING 3||BABIES 3||ON LAND 3|
|SIGNALS 4||FEEDING 4||BABIES 4||ON LAND 4|
|SIGNALS 5||FEEDING 5||BABIES 5||ON LAND 5|
|SIGNALS 6||FEEDING 6||BABIES 6||ON LAND 6|
|SIGNALS 7||ON LAND 7|
And, this page shows alligators at the park, on land, near various landmarks at the park.
Go back to my main alligator page, Alligators
Go back to my home page, Welcome
Go back to the See the World page.