Ask A Scientist

Why do alligator put their baby eggs in their mouths? 

Asked by: Giovanni Gili
School: Glenwood Elementary School, Vestal
Grade: 1
Teacher: Miss Brigham
Hobbies/Interests: LEGOs, volleyball, football 
Career Interest: Policeman 

 

Answer from Debbie Dittrich

Research Support Specialist

Research area: Teardown analysis of electronic packages
Interests/hobbies: Docent at the Binghamton Zoo, nature photography and gardening

Alligators belong to an order of reptiles called crocodilia. They are native to the United States and China. In fact, Florida is the only place in the world where both alligators and crocodiles live.

Unlike most reptiles, female crocodilians are good mothers. An alligator that is ready to lay eggs builds a large nest using mud, sticks and plants. She will lay 10-50 eggs on top of this nest and then cover them with more material. The decomposing plants warm the nest; since the gender of the developing babies is determined by temperature, this is very important. At a temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, the babies will all be female; at 93 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, they will all be male. At temperatures in-between, there will be a mix of males and females. The mother alligator senses this and may add or remove nesting material to maintain a temperature that will produce babies of both genders.

As the babies inside the eggs grow, the mother protects her nest from predators like raccoons. Even before they hatch, the babies begin to vocalize. This helps the mother alligator to know when her eggs start to hatch. Then she will open up the nest, gently pick up the hatchlings in her mouth and carry them to the water. Shaking her head from side to side encourages the babies to swim out. If there are eggs that haven’t hatched, she will roll them in her mouth to help them open. Baby alligators stay together in a group close to their mother for one to two years. When threatened, they will call their mom, and she will come to help them.

Wetlands are an important ecosystem, and alligators play a vital role in protecting them. Alligators make large holes, known as alligator holes, which hold water during dry times. As a result, plants and animals are better able to survive droughts. Nutria are small mammals that eat vegetation and can destroy a marsh by overgrazing. They are also a favorite prey of alligators, who control their numbers, thus preventing damage to the marsh.      

While you won’t find alligators in Binghamton University’s Nature Preserve, you can find all kinds of reptiles, including snakes and turtles. Stop by and visit when you get a chance!

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Last Updated: 9/25/14