Why Is This Gator Smiling?

American Alligator, Florida, January 2006

Alligators have been around a really, really long time. Fossils of Alligator prenalis date to the late Eocene; call it 35 million years ago. They are nearly indistinguishable from modern Alligator mississippiensis. And their reptilian ancestors, of course, trace back to the Jurassic. Humankind has been around about 300,000 years, less than a hundredth of that time.

Humankind is busy making the planet increasingly inhospitable to itself, heating the Earth up, flooding the coastlines with ice melt, devastating the land masses with apocalyptic weather events. All of those things are good news to gators. An American Alligator can eat just about anything, and succeeds and prospers in warm, wet environments. If you were an American Alligator, you’d be smiling, too.

Yes, WC understands the alligator isn’t really smiling. Bands of stem cells replace each of the animal’s 80 teeth with new teeth each year. That toothy smile is an artifact of dentition, and our perception of it is a consequence of humankind’s habit of imposing our perceptions on the world around us. That smile is also a product of evolution; the snout is shaped through millions of years to capture and hold prey, and is capable of impressive pressure when biting, over 13,000 Newtons by some measurements.

The alligator is smiling because it has escaped extinction. Hunted nearly to extirpation, it was one of the first animals listed under the Endangered Species Act and, under the protection of the act, recovered nicely. Unlike animals suffering habitat loss or destruction of food sources, the threat to the American Alligator was merely hunters. With the cause addressed, the species was de-listed in 1987.

The alligator is smiling because, as far as WC can tell, long after humankind has wiped itself out, the alligator will still be here. Still smiling.

(The photo was taken by WC with his first digital single lens reflex camera, an Olympus E-1, with a 300mm lens. WC is very respectful of gators.)

3 thoughts on “Why Is This Gator Smiling?

  1. I am a South Florida native, my family moved to Idaho way back in the mid-60’s. We lived on a good-sized piece of property in Broward county, there was an old silica sand mining pit, filled with water and ringed with vegetation, at the back of it, I was forbidden to venture there. Alligators and drowning being the main concerns. Of course I ignored the rule, certain I could see and out run any gator that might have interest in me. Hah. Well, I obviously survived and eventually took my son to Florida, visiting the (endangered) Everglades was a highlight. As in WC’s incredible photo, it was in January, the alligators were sprawled out on walkways. We were told just to walk around them, they were cold and sluggish. Just amazing. I have called their cold state torpor, but looked it up, the correct term for ectotherms in such a state is brumation. Once again, thank you WC for brilliant work.


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