ALLIGATOR, the name of a genus of crocodilian reptiles derived form a corruption of the Spanish el lagarto, from the Latin lacertus, a lizard. Alligators differ from crocodiles mainly in having relatively short and broad snouts and by the circumstance that as a rule the first and fourth tooth on each side of the lower jaw enter into pits in the upper jaw, whereas those of crocodiles slide outside of the jaw and are visible. The cay mans of South America may be included in the general term. These reptiles are confined mainly to the rivers of the New World, in which they typically represent the crocodiles of the eastern hemisphere, but there is one species in China (Alligator sinensis) first made known in 1879, and resembling the South American species. The best-known species are the alli gator of the Southern States (Alligator mis sissippiensis); the cayman of Surinam and Guiana (A. palpebrosus), and the spectacled alligator (A. sclerops), found in Brazil. In the water a full-grown alligator is a formidable animal, on account of its great size and strength. These reptiles swim with wonderful celerity, impelled by their long, laterally-compressed and powerful tails. On land their motions are pro portionally slow and embarrassed, owing to their weight, the shortness of their legs and generally unwieldy proportions. It grows to the length of 15 or possibly 20 feet, and is covered above by a dense armor of horny scales.
Under the throat of this animal are two openings or pores, the excretory ducts from glands which pour out a strong, musky fluid, giving the alligator a peculiarly unpleasant smell. In the spring of the year, when the males are under the excitement of the sexual propensity, they frequently utter a loud roar, which, from its harshness and reverberation, resembles distant thunder, especially where numbers are at the same time engaged. At this period frequent and terrible battles take place between the males, which terminate in the discomfiture and retreat of one of the parties. The females make their nests in a curious man ner, on the banks of rivers or lagoons, generally in the marshes, along which, at a short distance from the water, the nests are arranged some what like an encampment. They are obtuse cones four feet high and about four feet in diameter at the base, built of mud and grass. A floor of such mortar is first spread upon the ground, on which a layer of eggs, having hard shells and larger than those of a common hen, are deposited. Upon these another layer of
mortar, seven or eight inches in thickness, is spread, and then another bed of eggs; and this is repeated nearly to the top. From 100 to 200 eggs may be found in one nest. It is not ascertained whether each female watches her own nest exclusively or attends to more than her own brood. It is unquestionable, however, that the females keep near the nests and take the young under their vigilant care as soon as they are hatched, defending them with great perseverance and courage. The young may be seen following the mother through the water like a brood of chickens following a hen. When basking.in the sun on shore, the young are heard whining and yelping about the mother, not un like young puppies. In situations where alli gators are not exposed to much disturbance the sites of the nests appear to be very much fre quented, as the grass and reeds are beaten down for several acres around. The young, when first hatched, are very feeble and helpless, and are devoured by birds of prey, soft-shelled turtles, etc., as well as by the male alligators, until they grow old enough to defend themselves. As the eggs are also eagerly sought by vultures and other animals the race would speedily become extinct but for the great fecundity of the females.
The alligator is generally considered as dis posed to retire from man, but this is only where they are frequently disturbed. In situations where they are seldom or never interrupted they have shown a ferocity and the most alarming character in attacking individ uals in boats, rearing their heads from the water and snapping their jaws in a threatening man ner. At present alligators, though still numer ous in the remoter parts of Florida and Louisiana, are no longer regarded as very dan gerous. Their numbers annually decrease and at no distant period they must be nearly, if not quite, exterminated. In the winter the alligators spend a great part of their time in deep holes, which they make in the marshy banks of rivers, etc. They feed on fishes, rep tiles, small quadrupeds (dogs if they can get them) or carrion, and though very voracious are capable of existing a long time without food. Compare CROCODILE; and see CAYMAN; JACARE.