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Totems: Alligator, Part 2

by Cie Simurro, a.k.a. Thunderbird Starwoman


Where alligator populations are high, they can be heard bellowing up to a mile away, either in pairs, or hundreds of them on sunny spring mornings. It turns out that hitting B-flat on any musical instrument makes an alligator bellow! And if you thought that was interesting, here’s the really wild part: Males alternate terrifyingly loud bellows with earth-shaking infrasound vibrations. Infrasound, though inaudible to humans, is very intense energetically. The energy of infrasound is so intense that the water above their backs begins to "dance," as if boiling. Female alligators go crazy for this. If you are in the presence of this phenomenon, you will not hear it, but you will feel it in every bone of your body. Surrounding trees may begin shaking and dropping twigs and leaves. Some males also perform loud, territorial head slaps followed by infrasound.

You wouldn’t imagine that an alligator could mark territory in water, would you, but they do. While within the water, alligators elevate their heads and then forcefully press them against the surface of the water. By doing this, an alligator marks his turf. One of the reasons these kinds of signals are so effective is because there are thousands of little black dots sprinkled across a gator’s face, especially around the jaws, called dome pressure receptors (DPRs), which allow them to sense potential prey, as well as other signals.

Did you know that alligators have nighttime dances? In 2006, a zoologist named Vladimir Dinets discovered a remarkable courtship spectacle. In springtime, usually at night in deep water, dozens of alligators gather for courtship dances and mating. Males and females swim in circles, touch snouts, cough, and males sometimes fight, but are not as violent as their cousins, the crocodiles. You might not expect to hear “alligator love” described as tender and delicately sensual, but more than one source describes it just that way. In the wild, alligators can reach puberty and begin to mate when they’re nine or ten years old, if they’re large enough, because it depends on their size. And though they can choose different mates, some alligators seek out the same mate year after year. People with this totem often maintain long, faithful relationships – unless they feel betrayed by their partner. Then, it’s Sayonaragoodbye forever.

In early summer, after of few days of mating, pairs move to territories where the females build nests in mounds, covering them with mud, grass, and branches, and then lay 20-50 large eggs, which take about ten weeks to hatch. In a surprising act of maternalism, the mother alligator might hold one foot beneath her body to break the fall of any eggs. During the ten weeks, she will patrol the nest site to protect her young from predators such as raccoons and bears. The male might also hang around and protect the nest.

Interesting fact: alligator babies don’t have sex chromosomes. Sex is determined by the ambient air temperature at which the eggs develop. So, 94 degrees Fahrenheit or higher produces males; 86 degrees or lower produces females. As you may imagine, many clutches are mostly one sex or another – with a few variables, like where within the nest the mother lays the eggs; or where the nest itself is. Lighter-colored hatchlings emerge from cooler eggs, and darker-colored ones, from warmer eggs.

When baby alligators are ready to be born, they begin making noises inside thick, leathery eggs. Alligator babies have one large tooth to help them get out of their shell, but if a hatchling needs help, the mother will delicately pick the egg up in her mouth, and oh, so gently crack the shell with amazing control to free the hatchling. After helping to tear apart the eggshell so the babies can get out, she then, very gently carries them down to the water, where they immediately begin swimming. After they swim around her for a bit, they crawl up onto her head or back, to rest in the sun, or trail behind her like little ducklings, learning to feed on insects and other tiny creatures. Sometimes the father alligator will stick around for awhile; then the hatchlings will playfully sit atop his big head, oblivious to his size and power. Most mother alligators stay with their babies for months, and sometimes years. Women with this totem can be very maternal taking care of their children, sometimes to the point of not being able to let them go out on their own.

Conversely, if someone with alligator totem has a parent who abandons them at a young age, that child will learn to become self-sufficient. Occasionally, a female will abandon her babies to mate again, and lay a second clutch of eggs. The first set of hatchlings will be very susceptible to predators. Fish, frogs, and wading birds eat the two-foot long babies. Three-quarters of young alligators die in the first year. Even adult alligators will sometimes eat a baby alligator, but not when the baby gives a distress call! Gators will defend any baby that gives that call. And most mother gators will accept a baby from another clutch, even if they are a different age from her own babies. Gators are often raised communally by multiple females, and the hatchlings play with each other, and older nestmates too. Are you starting to feel how amazing alligators are?

Healthy alligators can live from 40 to 75 years or longer in captivity, and can grow to a length of 17 feet, though there is also a dwarf species that lives in the Florida Keys. During winter, American alligators hibernate in dens that are deep holes they’ve dug. They remain dormant until the temperature rises. If you have this Medicine, you are much more energetic in warmer weather. But you are, above all, at all times, a survivor. If alligator has appeared in a dream, or has popped in while reading this, ask yourself if there is anything in your life that threatens your survival? What do you really need to live? Is your home in good shape? Do you have enough food, including stores put by, for lean times?

Alligators have four webbed feet; some of the digits are capped with claws. Clawed feet prevent them from sinking in soft mud. Probably the part of alligator’s bodies that look most like dinosaurs are their tails. They use the broad surface of the tail to paddle when they swim, and they also use it to fight. As with their heads, you don’t want to get clubbed by an alligator, because their bruises take at least four to five weeks to heal. Adult alligators have no enemies but humans. Sometimes, though, they die in hurricanes, or during droughts, and they are susceptible to parasites. Once hunted almost to extinction for their belly skin and legs to make purses, shoes, and luggage, they are now supposed to be protected by Federal law since 1967 – but it’s tricky – because each state has its own regulations. No state allows indiscriminate killing of alligators, but there’s still lots of legal killing. Alligator management is sprinkled with words like harvest, thinning out, and cropping that make it sound like they’re crops being managed.

The Endangered Species Act helps some, but lucrative markets abroad provide a constant incentive to poachers. It’s hard for inspectors to tell where products made from alligator hides come from, by looking at a finished product. Even jail sentences, which are usually of short duration are worth it to some who make their living from these reptiles. Humans also destroy alligator habitats, especially the wetlands of southeastern U.S. Another hazard that is ever-increasing, is the ingestion of toxic substances and environmental waste that oozes into their habitats.

There is a Choctaw story about an alligator and a hunter, which illustrates the way animals should be taken, in a way that is respectful and sustainable. A hunter who couldn’t seem to get his deer, no matter how hard he tried was helped to become a great hunter by saving the life of an alligator, who in return, gave him advice that turned his luck around. As the alligator told him to do, he bypassed a doe who was very young, and one who was still of an age to bear young. He also was told to bypass the young buck that he would meet, which would father many young ones. Eventually, he met up with an old buck who was ready to give itself to him. It had lived a full life and was ready. The hunter greeted the old buck, and then thanked it for giving itself to him and his people, so that they might live.

Alligators have been useful to the human race. While it’s difficult to find lab technicians who want to keep an alligator in the lab in order to occasionally draw its blood (Lol) we do know that their red blood cells have been helpful diagnosing early arthritis in humans. Colonists used to use discarded alligator teeth to hold gunpowder, because the teeth are large and hollow on the inside. And let us not forget the phrase coined decades ago, but still in use, “See you later, alligator.”

No article about alligators would be complete without the persistent urban legend of alligators living in the underground sewers of New York City. Is it true? Well, it’s warm enough in the spring, summer and autumn. There are certainly enough rats for an alligator to subsist on; it could get Vitamin D from its food. There is documentation that in the 1930s and 40s, an inspector went down into the sewers and did see alligators. However, they probably wouldn’t survive NY winters, and alligators don’t do very well with other bacteria, and organisms that also thrive in the sewers, like salmonella, E.coli, and shigella.

Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been a Healer, Writer, Minister, Advocate and Steward for the natural world for over 45 years; author of this column for 20 years. Send me your email if you wish to be notified with a link to Wisdom when a new Totems article comes out. In order to be of the greatest service during these challenging and stressful times, if you want or need healing, I am available for a healing consult with you via video-conferencing and for long-distance healing for you or your pet. Call or email for more details and to arrange an appointment. Phone: 413 625-0385 or email: cie@ciesimurro.com


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