I now live surrounded by American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis). Kiawah Island is home to approximately 800 alligators. During the warmer months, even on warm days in January and February, it is impossible to navigate the island without several alligator sightings. Although the vast majority of these apex predators are between 3 and 8 feet in length, we have our share of 10 and 11 footers as well. It is not uncommon during the spring months, when alligators are moving about the island, to find them lost and confused in the surf. In the Midlands, alligators have been spotted in the Columbia Canal, just blocks from Main Street, and on the rare occasion near Lake Murray.
American alligators are reptiles and thus cold-blooded; they can be found throughout the coastal wetlands of the southeastern United States, as far north as North Carolina and as far west as eastern Texas. Often referred to as living dinosaurs, fossils identical to the existing American alligator have been found that are 8 million years old. They are commonly found in slow-moving freshwater rivers but also inhabit swamps, saltwater marshes, and lakes. Alligators are carnivores and will eat almost anything living or dead, including fish, turtles, frogs, and birds.
Several years ago, I watched as a large alligator attacked and ate a common loon. They also prey on a number of mammal species, including racoons, pigs, deer, and, on occasion, dogs and cats. They hunt predominantly at night, dragging prey underwater, where it is drowned and devoured.
Alligators start reproducing at around 10 years of age (6 to 8 feet in length). Alligators breed in the spring, and females can lay up to 90 eggs, although the typical clutch is about half that size. Nests are constructed out of decaying vegetation. Incubation lasts about 65 days. Young alligators often fall prey to a variety of predators, including birds, snakes, mammals, and even other alligators. Cannibalism is common. Alligators can live to be 50 to 60 years old.
Just how big can alligators get? I typically have friends and neighbors tell me they have seen 14-foot alligators on Kiawah. This is highly unlikely and may be due to the tendency of most people to overestimate the size of animals. On Aug. 16, 2014, an Alabama woman killed an alligator that measured 15 feet 9 inches long and weighed 1,011.5 pounds. Historically, there have been unconfirmed accounts of alligators exceeding 17 and 19 feet. Today, most “large” alligators are much smaller, rarely exceeding 10 feet.
The fact that alligators are now quite common is no accident. American alligators were threatened with extinction during the middle of the 20th century due to overhunting for their meat and skins. In 1967, alligators were listed as federally endangered. Due to management and conservation efforts by state and federal governments, the population has since rebounded and is now estimated at between 2 and 3 million animals, close to their historically high population. They are now considered “fully recovered.”
It is estimated that approximately 100,000 alligators now live in the state of South Carolina, although an exact number is difficult to determine. Alligators are generally found south of the Fall Line, which is an imaginary line separating the Piedmont from the Coastal Plain, that runs through Columbia. Populations of alligators in South Carolina have done so well that the Department of Natural Resources instituted a month-long hunting season in 2008.
While human-alligator encounters are rare, a woman was killed by a 10-foot alligator on Kiawah in May 2020 while attempting to take a “selfie” with the animal. The attack garnered a great deal of media attention, but it marked only the third person in recorded South Carolina history to be killed by an alligator. This simple strategy will avoid an attack: give them a wide berth and do not swim in waters known to be populated with alligators.
Later today I plan to play golf on one of Kiawah’s great courses. If I’m lucky I will see a dozen or more alligators. I can’t wait.