How to cuddle an alligator

Albert
Albert, blissed out

At the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, we have two new arrivals: a pair of just hatched American alligators. It’s important to start handling your baby alligator when it’s still very young or you’ll find it increasingly difficult to make any impression as the animal grows larger. So, happily, I’ve been invited by our wonderful education staff to stop frequently in and give them some welcome attention.

 

I even got to name them. The little fellow in this photo is Albert. Standard wisdom says that a young crocodilian will initially regard you as a threat – a predator about to eat it. Not so with these two, which were imprinted on humans from hatching and have been handled daily since. Instead, when you pick them up they give the characteristic soft “yoink” that they use when communicating with their mother through the egg shell just before hatching. Even more engaging is that when you softly stroke their heads and necks they go into what can only be described as a blissful trance, with their heads in the air and their eyes closed. Stroking between Albert’s eyes and nostrils  (no, don’t try this at home…) he opens his mouth, it seems waiting for food.

 

Whooping crane and aligators
John James Audubon (1834) Whooping Crane with snacks (detail)

The more often we pick up and handle our young charges, the more they will habituate to our presence – learning that as much as we might seem to them like the Whooping Crane in Audubon’s famous painting, being picked up is not the prelude to being on the menu.

 

Albert’s name comes from the alligator featured in the Walt Kelly’s popular comic strip “Pogo”, which ran from 1948 to 1975. Set in Florida’s Okefenokee Swamp, the strip often engaged in social and political satire through the adventures of its funny anthropomorphic animal characters: an opossum, a porcupine, a turtle, various domesticated animals and, of course, an alligator. Much like the Pixar movies of today, the same comics can be enjoyed on different levels by both young children and savvy adults.

Walt Kelly Albert the Alligator
A sketch from “Pogo” by Walt Kelly

After years, the name made its way into my consciousness while thinking of what to call the alligators. The scientific name of the American alligator is Alligator mississippiensis, referring to its native home in the southeastern United States. In our tank, Albert’s notional sister is Alecia, which not only has a satisfying alliteration but her namesake, Alecia Keys, nicely invokes the Florida Keys, where alligators are right at home. (Scientists need their fun too…)

Albert and Alecia are at the Carnegie to engage children in basic biology of wildlife but, arguably more valuable, they open up kids and their parents to important messages around wildlife conservation and sustainable development. The American alligator is now listed as “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But it wasn’t always this way. Their populations have been threatened historically by over-hunting and the species was listed as endangered by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The good news is that through subsequent conservation efforts their numbers have increased and the species was removed from the list in 1987. Today they are harvested for their skin and meat in Louisiana and Florida.

Gavialis_gangeticus,_ZOO_Praha_045.jpg
A Gharial at Prague Zoo. Photo: Matěj “Dědek” Baťha

Other crocodilians (the order that includes crocodiles, alligators, caiman and their relatives) are still experiencing serious threats to their survival. One such species is the Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) of the Indian Subcontinent, estimated to have declined from as many as 10,000 individuals in 1946 to fewer than 235 individuals alive in 2006, a decline of 96–98% within three generations. They have been killed by fishermen, overhunted for skins, trophies and indigenous medicine and their eggs collected for human consumption. Their habitat has been both declining and degrading dramatically, for sand mining and dumps for industrial waste.  Today, the few remaining individuals form several fragmented sub-populations.

Oronoco crocodile
Orinoco crocodile. Photo: Josh More

The Orinoco crocodile (Crocodylus intermedius) is another critically endangered crocodilian. It is restricted to freshwater environments in Colombia and Venezuela, in particular the Orinoco River and its tributaries. They were extensively hunted for their skins in the 19th and 20th centuries and during the 1940s to the 1960s, thousands of these animals were slaughtered in the Orinoco River and the Llanos wetlands. The species came very close to extinction and, although it was given protected status in the 1970s, populations have yet to recover. Today, historical threats from hunting have been replaced by collection of juveniles for sale in the live animal trade, pollution, competition from the smaller spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus), as well as the proposal of a dam in the upper Orinoco River region. Population estimates in the wild range between 250 and 1500.

One question we have is how long Albert will be with us. Adult male American alligators measure up to 15 ft in length and can weigh up to 1000 lbs. Females are smaller, measuring around 10 ft. Being apex predators, they consume fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. While at 9 inches Albert and Alecia are currently completely docile, it pays to keep in mind that they’re wild animals and that, in the wild, they’re capable of taking down a full grown deer, Florida panther or a black bear.

Albert2But that day is a long way off. We have years to enjoy them and watch to see if they begin display interesting behaviors their wild relatives do, such as using tools or developing a taste for elderberries and grapes. During that time, we’ll get to know the animals and their individual personalities. And through association with them, many school and family visitors will strengthen their bonds with nature – something the world needs critically at the moment.

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