Alligators are pretty terrifying as they are, but scientists are making discoveries about the reptilian ambush predators that only add to that reputation.
1. Alligators have an extremely powerful bite.
You really, really don’t want to be bitten by an alligator. A 2004 study of wild and captive alligators found that large individuals bite down with 13,172 Newtons—or 2960 pounds—of force, one of the most powerful bites ever recorded for a living animal [PDF].
2. Alligators can consume almost a quarter of their body weight in one meal.
Alligators don’t have a problem with their eyes being bigger than their stomachs. Thanks to a special blood vessel—the second aorta—they’re able to shunt blood away from their lungs and towards their stomachs, stimulating the production of strong stomach acids to break down their meals faster. Juvenile alligators are capable of eating about 23 percent of their body weight in a sitting, which is equivalent to a 180-pound person eating more than 41 pounds of steak au poivre at a meal.
3. Alligators eat their young.
One of the biggest threats to an American alligator? Other alligators. When alligators are born they’re small enough to be light snacks for their older neighbors, and a 2011 study estimated that, in one Florida lake, bigger alligators ate 6 to 7 percent of the juvenile population every year.
4. An alligator's stomach can dissolve bones.
An alligator stomach is a hostile environment. Their stomach acids have a pH of less than 2—in the range of lemon juice and vinegar—and most soft-bodied prey is totally digested in two to three days. If you wound up in a gator stomach, however, you'd stick around a bit longer. Bone and other hard parts can take 13 to 100 days to disappear completely.
5. Alligators have antibiotic blood.
Alligators are tough—and not just because of the bony armor in their skins. Serum in American alligator blood is incredibly effective at combating bacteria and viruses, meaning that even alligators that lose limbs in mucky swamps often avoid infection.
6. Prehistoric ancestors of today's alligators lived 70 million years ago.
Alligator forerunners and relatives have been around for a very long time. The largest was Deinosuchus, a 40-foot alligatoroid that lurked in coastal habitats all over North America around 70 million years ago. Damaged bones suggest that unwary dinosaurs were a regular part of the “terrible crocodile's” diet. Fortunately, modern American alligators don’t come anywhere close to measuring up.
7. Alligator pairs often stick together.
A decade-long genetic study of Louisiana alligators found that some females paired with the same males multiple times, with one in particular choosing the same mate in 1997, 2002, and 2005. Even some females that mated with multiple partners still showed long-term fidelity to particular males.
8. Alligators love fruit.
Alligators aren’t strict carnivores. They also eat fruit when they get the chance, and might be important seed-dispersers. That might not sound so scary at first, but just watch this video of an alligator mashing a watermelon.
9. Despite their short legs, alligators can climb trees.
While on the lookout for alligators, you should remember to occasionally look up. American alligators, as well as several other species of crocodilian, are surprisingly accomplished climbers [PDF]. As long as there’s enough of an incline for them to haul themselves up, gators can climb trees to get to a better basking spot, or get the drop on you, as the case may be.
10. Alligators use tools to lure their prey.
Alligators might be reptilian innovators. Scientists have observed Indian and American species of alligator luring waterbirds by placing sticks and twigs across their snouts while they remain submerged. When the birds go to pick up the twigs for nesting material, the gators chomp.
11. Alligators have no vocal cords, but they still make sounds.
Alligators are among the most vocal reptiles, despite not having vocal cords. By sucking in and then expelling air from their lungs, they can make different sounds to defend their territory, call to mates or their young, or fight off competitors—such as a guttural hiss or a frankly terrifying bellow.