By Patrick D. Bonin
BRANCH, LA. – The American alligator is the largest reptile in North America, and south Louisiana happens to be home to the greatest gator population in the United States.
Their wild population is booming here, and so is the alligator industry: recent estimates place its value at $50 million annually for Louisiana! And although over 300,000 alligators are harvested each year from both farm and wild sources, their population remains constant or slightly increasing, proving their worth as valuable renewable natural resources for the state.
Alligators are slightly less than a foot long when hatched from their eggs, and females will grow to approximately nine feet long and weight about 200 pounds. Males, on the other hand, can grow to 13 feet in length and reach more than 500 pounds!
The gators range from central Texas all the way to coastal North Carolina, with Louisiana’s estimated population at about 2 million. Here, they can be found in ponds, lakes, canals, bayou, rivers and swamps, with the highest population concentrations in coastal marshes.
The gators mate in spring, and females retreat to isolated ponds or interior marshy areas to select a nesting site. They build their nest by pulling vegetation together into a mound, two to four feet high and four to eight feet in diameter. After laying an average of 35 eggs, she covers the eggs with plant material from the nest. The decomposing plants provide heat for the eggs, and after about 65 days, young will hatch.
A unique characteristic of alligators is that sex determination is dependent upon incubation temperatures. More males are produced when eggs are incubated at 90 degrees and above, while more females hatch when eggs are incubated at 87 degrees and below.
The vast majority of alligators harvested in Louisiana come from “alligator ranches” located here. Louisiana started a program in 1986 which allows licensed alligator farmers to collect alligator eggs on private lands and hatch them under artificial conditions.
Typically, farmers raise alligators until they reach approximately 3’ to 5’ in length. But to participate in the program, farmers must agree to release back into the wild what would have typically survived to the 3’-5’ size class, usually about 12% of a hatch.
Releasing these mature gators back into the wild has several advantages, including better survival rates and consistent alligator production. (If predators or flooding would have destroyed a wild nest, no eggs would hatch and the population would not have had the chance to increase.)
Although just about all parts of the alligator are used, the meat and skin are the most valuable. Alligator skin is salted and then tanned, and used to make a wide variety of items including belts, boots, shoes, purses and more.
Alligator meat is a tasty treat, and can be prepared in a variety of ways. If you’d like to sample some awesome gator fillets, just click here.
Source: Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries