One main difference between alligators and crocodiles is that alligators' teeth don't show when their mouths are closed. But you should never get close enough to tell, according to Topsail Hill State Park Ranger Chris Roberts.
"Give him his distance," said Roberts, adding that you'll want to make that distance about 20-25 feet as alligators can run up to 30 miles per hour. "Respect him and he'll respect you."
That advice, along with many other facts, were shared by Roberts at the park's interpretive program on alligators Jan. 11.
The American Alligator typically lives in the Southeast U.S., as well as in Central America and northwest South America. They are not uncommon in South Walton and can live in fresh and brackish waters, though they will normally stay away from the salt water of our Gulf.
At least four of these scaly reptiles live at Topsail Hill State Park, and it is important to remember that "Alligators are our neighbors," said Roberts.
This is especially important for those who have four-legged family members, as alligators are known to eat small house pets.
"They love dogs," said Roberts, citing an incident in Blackwater State Park where an alligator had eaten at least seven dogs, evidenced by dog accessories in his stomach, including the tracking collar of one $5,000 hunting dog.
"Dogs don't know what that gator is — they'll just sit and 'yip, yip, yip,' " said Roberts.
They will eat most four-legged mammals, as well as birds.
"Alligators are not picky eaters," said Roberts, adding that many have been found with everything from fishing lures to beer cans in their stomachs.
Lucky for us, alligators don't prefer two-legged prey. "They don't really want us," said Roberts, adding that though alligator attacks on humans are rare, they are not completely unheard of. "They're scared of us."
Any four-legged prey, however, is fair game for the adult-sized gator. But they have to make it to that age first.
When they hatch, the six- to eight-inch babies have a mere 20 percent chance at survival. Eighty percent are eaten in their first two years of life, whether by birds, snakes, raccoons, or even large bass.
As they grow, however, their list of predators dwindles. When they reach two or more feet, alligators' only predators are each other. From four to six feet, man is the only thing gators need look out for.
As the average gator hits eight to 10 feet, however, it becomes an "apex hunter."
"They will take down anything," said Roberts.
Alligators have been found up to 19 feet, 2 inches, but the average size of a full-grown alligator is about 11 or 12 feet and around 500 pounds. They live to be about 30 to 35 years old in the wild and 60 to 80 in captivity.
Females are ready to mate around 9 or 10 years old, while males are ready at about 7. The alligator mating season is prompted by temperature, and begins around early March. The males work to seduce the females, with snout touching, circling, bellowing, back rubbing, and bubble blowing.
Ultimately, though, it's lady's choice when it comes to picking a mate for the season.
From 20 to 50 alligator eggs are laid in a nest made of vegetation, mud and sand in late June to early July. If the temperature is 86 degrees, all of the babies born in late August or early September will be females. If the temperature is 91 degrees, all of the babies will be males. At any temperature in between, the babies will be mixed, male and female.
After a mother gator lays the eggs, she will leave or, "Some good moms stay around," said Roberts. These moms protect the eggs from hungry hogs and bobcats, snakes and other animals. Really good mothers will protect their babies for the first three years.
Because they are so protective, Roberts said it is important to keep plenty of distance from an alligator and her breeding area and nest. Another personally beneficial measure is to abide by laws that make it illegal to feed or disturb alligators, as this can train the reptiles to be aggressive nuisance alligators.
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, which sits at the western entrance of County Road 30A, has been doing these presentations "back when we were using slide projectors," said Park Ranger Fred Provost. "The types of presentations are a very integral part of the parks service."