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It was by accident that two such similar reptiles as the alligator and crocodile were given different common names. When the Spanish seamen, who had no knowledge of crocodiles, first saw large reptiles in the Central American rivers they spoke of them as lizards, which is el largato in Spanish. Later when English sailors, who followed the Spanish to this area, saw the reptiles they adopted the Spanish name but ran the two into one to make it alligators. This was further corrupted later still into alligator.
Alligators and crocodiles look very much alike. The main distinguishing feature is in their teeth. The crocodile has teeth in both the upper and lower jaw, which are aligned, but in the alligator, the upper teeth lie outside the lower teeth. In addition the alligator has a head that is broader and shorter, with a blunter snout.
There are two species of alligators found in North America with a third found in China. The Chinese alligator is a little over 4 feet in length and has no webs between its toes. The American alligator is much larger, growing sometimes as large as over 19 feet long. By nature, alligators are more sluggish than crocodiles. It is believed that this may have an effect on their longevity since some have lived more than 50 years. Most of an alligator’s day is spent basking on the banks of a river. Most of the animals are restricted to the southeastern part of the United States where they have been observed in some number. They are carnivorous animals, but their diet changes with their age. Young animals will usually feed on insects and fresh water shrimp. As they grow older they eat a diet of frogs, snakes and fish. Mature adults live mainly on fish, muskrats, waterfowl and other small mammals that go to the waters edge to drink. If very large, an alligator has been known to pull down a deer or cow to feast on.
The female alligator plays a more active role in the courtship and defense of the territory, while the males spend much of the breeding season quarreling among themselves. Males are know to roar and fight, even injuring other males in their quest. It is the roaring of the male that attracts the female to the male. This, plus a musky secretion from the glands in a male's throat and cloaca, draws the female in for a night courtship. The couple will swim around faster and faster, finally mating with their jaws locked. To make the large nest the female will scoop up mud in her jaws and mix it with decaying vegetation. This she deposits on the nest site until a 3-foot high mound is made. The female will lay between 15 and 80 hard-shelled eggs in a depression in the top of the mound. Theses are then covered with more vegetation. The female stays close to the nest during the 2 to 3 months it takes for the eggs to hatch. Hatchling alligators peep loudly and the mother removes the layers of vegetation to help them escape. Most baby alligators are around 8 inches long when first hatched and will grow one foot per year until they reach maturity at six years old. Young alligators often fall prey to carnivorous mammals, fish and birds during all stages of their growth. At times they are even attacked by larger alligators. Commercial interest in items made of alligator skin and land drainage has seriously affected the numbers of the American alligator.