Temperature Influences Alligators

Temperature affects all living things in some way.  This is especially true of alligators.  While exploring the wetlands of South Carolina last week, I became much more aware of how ambient temperatures drive almost all aspects of their lives.

As cold-blooded reptiles, alligators are ectothermic.  They rely on external sources to regulate their body temperature.  For example, they lay out in the sun to warm up and float in water to cool down.  Temperature also affects an alligator’s ability to eat.  As temperatures decrease, so does its metabolism.  In fact, when temperatures fall below 70°F they stop feeding since they will not be able to digest what they consume.  If temperatures fall even further, into the 50°F range, alligators become inactive or dormant and ride out the colder weather in dens.

Environmental temperature also plays a critical role in determining the gender of baby alligators.  Through a process known as temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD), eggs that incubate at 93°F or higher all become males while temperatures below 86°F produce all females. Temperatures that hover in between create a mixture of both sexes. Scientists do not know exactly why this process developed, but they have found that it tends to produce more females than males.

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An alligator basks in the sun along the edge of a swamp in South Carolina.

Image Credit: The Weather Gamut

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About Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming is an environmental communicator and visual artist working at the intersection of art and science. She is passionate about exploring, learning, and sharing information about the natural world. She has presented her interdisciplinary work in a variety of mediums at venues and conferences around the world.