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Calm Before the Storm

At a time when its beaches and theme parks draw boisterous crowds, Florida's alligators simply want a little peace and quiet — a comfortable log, say, or a sunlit bank on which to bask uninterrupted. But visitors shouldn't take the aloof behavior personally. The fact is that alligators experience a biological slowdown in the winter months. Perhaps they're resting in preparation for the spring, when an active, loquacious mating period commences and members of both sexes bellow from the swamps and defend their territories.

Generally speaking, alligators seldom wander far from home. It's common for a female to spend its entire life within a half-mile of its birthplace. And if displaced for some reason — frustrated homeowners have been known to take such measures — the alligator will usually return to its home. One gator found its way back after being moved 35 miles.

Alligators have been documented to live for fifty years or more. As a result, they can become quite enormous. Most of the real monsters — including the alligator captured in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, in 1890 that measured 19 feet, 2 inches — have disappeared, but even in recent times American Alligators measuring 14 feet from head to tail have been found in Florida. Typical adult females now measure about 8 feet long, while the males average 11 feet long.

Wild alligators shun humans whenever possible, but those commonly in contact with people at golf courses, wildlife sanctuaries, and other high traffic areas can grow quite trusting of humans. It's a mistake, though, for humans to put too much trust in alligators. Granted, unprovoked attacks on humans are extremely rare, but fatalities have occurred.

One final note: Three species of crocodilians exist in Florida. The American Alligator, which occurs in freshwater habitats, is the only one found throughout the state. The American Crocodile, meanwhile, favors brackish and saltwater areas in southwestern Florida. The third crocodilian, the introduced and secretive Spectacled Caiman, is restricted to a few counties in southern Florida. The alligator and crocodile are fully protected by law; the caiman is not.