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October 2012 How To Survive!

Posted in Features on October 1, 2012
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Next time you see Jp staffer Verne, ask him about his experiences with alligators. And about that 800-pound gator in Phoenix. We did, because we really don’t have much to talk to him about. But for the first time, we actually listened to the words coming out of his mouth, especially the story that started, “You think you’re safe in the Southwest….”

He got us thinking about how to survive an alligator encounter, and we turned to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries—specifically Biologist Manager Ruth M. Elsey. Because you know, gators there are like the state flower or something.

First of all, what’s the difference between gators and crocs? Beyond the spellings and those plastic, holey shoes, Ruth explained, “There are many differences: habitat, location, temperature tolerances, size, morphology, and nesting biology.” Morphology refers to the shape of the body parts and skull, while nesting points to a mound nest for alligators and a hole nest for many crocodiles. To go even more superficial, it’s the crocodile that has a bit of a longer, sharply pointed snout, while the alligator’s is U-shaped.

In terms of there being a specific alligator hunting season, it varies state to state. In Louisiana “It starts the last Wednesday of August in the East zone and the first Wednesday of September in the West zone,” Ruth said. The alligator—as reliable as Thanksgiving always being on a Thursday.

They can live more than 50 years, and can be as long as 14 feet, although a 19-footer-plus has been recorded. In Louisiana, there are about 1.5 million gators statewide. And let’s talk about how they multiply: “They have temperature-dependent sex determination—the sex of hatchlings depends on the temperature at which the egg is incubated—with temps around 85 degrees Fahrenheit leading to mostly females and temps around 91 degrees Fahrenheit leading to mostly males.”

You might have always associated crocs more with water, but “You should assume any water body in Louisiana has alligators. Coastal marshes have the highest populations.” In fact, alligators are primarily an aquatic species.

Now, there’s one misconception, that they aren’t found around water. Another? That they will go to sleep if you rub their belly. Glad we weren’t on that task force. Others are that marshmallows are part of their natural diet and that it’s safe to pick them up by their tail. Again, pity the task force.

So, you’ve spotted one while on, say, a boat. What should you never do? Bug them, throw things at them, or feed them. Spot one on land, what should you never do? Bug them, throw things at them, or feed them. They already heard you, smelled you, or felt your vibrations; you have their attention. No need to call them over.

If an alligator hisses, you’ll for sure know it thinks you’re too close. On the other hand, spotting one with its mouth open probably means it’s simply cooling its body temperature while basking in the sun. If it senses you nearby, it will likely head into the water to get away. They don’t really like humans. The ones that do are likely the ones who have been fed by humans, so, again, don’t feed them. They’ll eat almost anything. Speaking of….

Oh, look, one is coming over. Now what? Back away, slowly. They can run up to 3-5 mph, so while they appear slow moving upon observation, that’s not the case in reality. There’s also advice to run in a zigzag direction away from it, particularly if you’re being chased, but Ruth says she doesn’t know of any studies proving that’s useful. On the other hand, no studies prove that it’s not; go ahead and zig when you zag if the mood strikes. If the encounter wants to turn aggressive, make noise as a diversion. You might just scare it off. Or not….

Oh, look, one has your foot in its mouth. Now what? “Pray.” Ruth advised. “A land attack is unlikely unless someone is foolhardy enough to approach an alligator. I have heard people have tried to poke/gouge crocodilians in the eye to disengage from an attack.” If a small alligator bites you on, say, the finger, “Have someone use a screwdriver to help release you; sometimes if people panic and try pull their finger out of the mouth—a natural reaction—they get more ‘shearing’ damage than if they let someone try to free their finger,” Ruth added. Big alligator? Switch to a crowbar. And punching in the snout is also worth giving a go…however, Verne Simons says that can also make them open their mouths. Food for thought…no pun intended.


Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries

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