Florida is renowned as one of the towed water sports capitals of the world due to year round subtropical climate and ample access to tree-lined lakes. One of the most frequently asked questions is, “Are there alligators in Florida lakes?” Take a deep breath and forget everything you saw in the film Lake Placid because it is NOT an accurate portrayal of the Alligator mississippiensis otherwise known as the American alligator. Similar to Jaws and other horror fandom fiction films, the plot was designed to escalate fear rather than educate the general populace about one of the oldest natives to the Southeastern United States. The intent of this article is to provide a comprehensive knowledge base pertaining to alligators in Florida lakes and address any safety concerns regarding their role with towed water sports. But before we begin, take another deep breath… you’re looking a little pale like our friend pictured above. Jeyan Kwok - a.k.a. Giant Fang - is one of only twelve alligators on the planet with Leucism.
A Brief History Lesson on Alligators
La Florida made its first major appearance in the history books over five centuries ago when Spaniard explorer Juan Ponce de León made landfall on the Eastern coastline. Florida was a hotly contested territory during that period. Spanish treasure fleets used the Gulf Stream to ferry ships up the coastline before disembarking across the Atlantic Ocean. The Spanish plate ships were laden with gold and silver derived from the Caribbean Islands as well as Central and South America, which led to inherent piracy issues along the intercoastal. St. Augustine became the first permanent European settlement in the continental U.S. serving as one of many garrisoned forts for the passing Spanish treasure ships. The English colonized regions farther up the Eastern coastline while the French colonized the Gulf side of the state but no one was fighting over inland Florida. Despite exploration of the state, extreme humidity, swamp lands, dense forest brush, insects, and some rather unhappy natives turned away most desires for inland colonization.
The name "alligator" was derived from the Spanish name el lagarto - meaning ‘the lizard’ - during the sixteenth century, which alludes to Spanish interaction with the species during their Florida occupation. The Florida territory changed ownership flags several times before finally being ceded to the United States in 1821. The (now) American alligator has thus faced habitat encroachment from major land development for less than two hundred years while the alligator genus made its first appearance in the fossil record thirty-seven million years ago. Alligators share an evolutionary heritage with crocodiles from over one-hundred million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. The alligators were obviously not properly represented in their dispute of eminent domain.
Florida Geography and Biodiversity
Florida waterways cover nearly nineteen percent of the state ranking it third in the nation for most square miles of inland waters. Because of this, Florida is home to many diverse ecosystems hosting numerous lifeforms essential to the vitality of each region. Alligator mississippiensis is the largest class of Reptilia on the North American continent and serves as a keystone species crucial to stability in those regions. The American alligator plays the vital role of apex predator maintaining balance of other aquatic populations. Larger alligators create burrows - coined gator holes - that provide habitats for several aqueous species during droughts as well as increasing plant diversity in the region. Alligators are also used as a prominent indicator for evaluating the health of the Everglades. Simply getting rid of alligators would catastrophically upset the entire Florida ecosystem. So yes, there are alligators in Florida lakes just as there are sharks in the oceans and birds in the sky but this is no reason for concern or panic. The goal is to reside amongst these creatures without incurring human loss nor causing further detriment to their natural habitat.
What states have alligators?
The American alligator inhabits the southeastern portion of the United States and is found in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas.
Do alligators live in lakes?
Alligators are a semi-aquatic species who prefer calm waters for habitation. Alligators are known to occupy marshes, lakes, ponds, rivers, swamps, and wetland areas. They may also occasionally be found in brackish waters but are highly sensitive to salinity due to lacking particular glands. They are ectothermic meaning their body temperature is regulated by external sources of cooling and heating, thus they are predominately found in shallow waters and on shorelines to maintain a comfortable temperature range.
What do alligators eat?
Alligators are apex hunters because the adults lack natural predators in their ecosystem except for humans. The alligator is an opportunistic feeder relying on ambush techniques against easily overpowered prey. They utilize a vast series of integumentary sense organs on their face to detect pressure changes and vibration, which help identify nearby food sources while floating idle in calm waters. Alligator teeth are extremely strong but not ideal for chewing. Their teeth in culmination with extremely powerful jaws are used for gripping or crushing small prey - such as turtles - but they typically swallow food whole. Alligators have a palatal valve in the back of their mouths to prevent water from filling their lungs while submerged. The palatal valve is opened while their head is above water to swallow prey whole. Juvenile to adult alligators primarily feed on amphibians, birds, fish, insects, invertebrates, small mammals, and snakes. Alligators - unlike crocodiles - do not regard humans as prey.
Where are alligators located in Florida?
Florida is home to an estimated two million American alligators, which means there is an alligator for every twenty-one acres of land in the state of Florida. For those who prefer a visual reference, that would be one alligator for every sixteen football fields of land in the state. To put this in perspective, there are nearly twenty-one million people living in Florida, which means there is one human for every one and one-half football fields of land in the state. Despite thirty-seven million years of existence versus Homo sapiens measly three hundred thousand years or so, modern humans outnumber alligators nearly eleven-to-one in Florida.
Alligator Need to Know
Aquaplaning (any towed water sport including barefooting, waterskiing, wakeboarding, wakesurfing, or tubing behind the boat) is legal one half-hour before sunrise to one half-hour after sunset. The alligator is a nocturnal hunter so stay out of the water during their primary feeding times.
Do not feed alligators!
Alligators have a natural fear of humans but feeding alligators will cause them to associate humans with food, which can provoke aggressive behavior. Unlike your dog Fido, alligators are purely instinctual hunters that will bite the hand that feeds, and screaming, “bad dog” will not get them to let go. It is also illegal to feed wild alligators. If you want to have a close encounter feeding an alligator, we recommend spending a day at Gatorland where your family and friends can learn about these amazing creatures and have the opportunity to feed live ones in a controlled and safe environment.
Avoid shorelines from dusk till dawn
Alligators are nocturnal hunters seeking easily overpowered food sources. Even though they do not regard humans as menu items, small animals or small humans wading in shallow waters near shorelines during these hours are potentially susceptible to an attack. As stated prior, stay out of the water during their primary feeding times.
Do not approach or harass alligators
Lakes are a natural habitat for alligators meaning humans are guests in their environment and we have to play by their rules - like removing our shoes at the door. Alligators will initially hiss as a warning signal of feeling threatened. Provocation beyond the hiss may lead to a charge so maintain a safe distance of at least thirty feet. Despite their lethargic appearance, alligators are capable of running at speeds up to eleven miles per hour. When was the last time you visited the gym?
Myth Buster: Running in a zig zag pattern is NOT an effective manner of outrunning an alligator.
Alligator mating season is mid-April through May. During this period, larger male alligators can be exceptionally aggressive for territorial reasons. Alligators are not pets so do not attempt to interact regardless of how placid they may seem on land or in the water.
Marshes, swamps, undeveloped shorelines, and wetland areas are ideal locations for alligator nesting. Female alligators will construct large mounds (approximately six feet in diameter by three feet in height) of mud and vegetation as an incubation chamber for a clutch of eggs and will lay nearby to protect the nest from scavengers such as opossums, raccoons, and skunks. The incubation period for hatchlings is about sixty-five days. Female alligators will become extremely aggressive when defending nests. Don’t mess with mama.
Alligators dislike boat engine noise
Alligators use a multitude of low and high frequency sounds for communication ranging from distress signals to mating calls. Their hearing abilities are quite adept above and beneath the surface of the water. Alligators are well aware of our rumbling four-hundred horsepower engines and have zero desire to engage these vessels or the passengers, especially when the boat is cruising at four-thousand RPMs while wakesurfing.
Nuisance alligator removal
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) initiated a Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program (SNAP) for removing alligators deemed to be potentially hazardous to people, pets, or property. Nuisance alligators are typically four or more feet in length and have either lost their fear of humans due to being fed or have decided to move to a proximity entirely too close for human comfort, such as your swimming pool. If you live near any body of water or marsh area, a fence of four and one-half feet or higher is recommended to protect small pets since alligators are very adept climbers. If you believe an alligator poses a threat, please contact the FWC directly at 866-FWC-GATOR (866.392.4286).
The American Alligator was on the verge of extinction until the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. In less than two decades, American alligator populations regenerated enough to be subsequently removed from the endangered list. Alligators are some of the last living dinosaurs on Earth and with consideration and understanding of their behaviors and environment, towed water sports enthusiasts can enjoy and share the waterways safely with this local resident. We would like to extend our thanks to the University of Florida and Dr. Catherine Carr of the University of Maryland for their extensive research articles, the FWC for their continued efforts to maintain the peace between our two species, and especially Brandon Fisher of Gatorland (pictured below) for an amazing tour and his expertise in helping compose this article.