It was a baby alligator, and probably had several dozen siblings somewhere. Less than a foot long now, if it’s one of the few that manages to avoid becoming someone else’s meal, it will grow as long as 10 feet in another eight years or so.
This gator was swimming in an aquarium at the Brazos Bend State Park Nature Center, where volunteers will let you stroke their rough leather hide.
In the spring and early summer, Brazos Bend and other area swamps swarm with these hatchlings. A few weeks ago, I saw a pod of two dozen in the shallows at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, just lying in the vegetation, periodically climbing over top of one another before going back to sleep. Sleeping in the sun for hours on end appears to one of the first alligator skills they acquire.
The last time I saw them at Brazos Bend, a pod was crawling all over its mother – on her back and into her gaping mouth.
Alligators start out life as a group of several dozen eggs buried in rotting vegetation to help keep them warm during their two months of incubation. Along with some other reptiles, turtles and fish, their sex is determined after the eggs are laid, and depends on the temperature of the nest. If it’s over 93 degrees, the hatchlings will be males, under 86 degrees, and they’ll be females. In between, it’s a tossup.
Hatchlings are about nine inches long or so with bright yellow stripes that fade as they age. Young alligators grow about a foot a year and eat a variety of small fare, including insects, snails, frogs, small fish, crawfish and crabs.
Most of the young fall prey to the same predators that they soon will be eating themselves – birds, raccoons, snakes and large fish. Once they’re several feet long, their their only predators will be another alligator and, of course, us.
Young alligators are hardly intimidating, while their elders hiss and roar, they sort of chirp, as you can hear in this recording from the Brazos Bend State Park Volunteer Organization:
But mom is usually not far away, and as cute as they are, picking them up is not really a good idea.