How Alligators Work

The Alligator Diet
Alligators can propel themselves up to 5 feet out of the water with their tails.
Alligators can propel themselves up to 5 feet out of the water with their tails.

When it is time to eat, alligators are neither hunters nor gatherers. They are lurkeĀ­rs. They wait for something edible to swim or walk nearby and they lunge at it with incredible speed. Using their tails, alligators can push themselves up to 5 feet out of the water to snag small animals in low-hanging tree branches.

Alligators will eat almost anything they can capture -- fish, turtles, frogs, birds, small mammals, and sometimes even larger mammals like deer. Alligators capture all of these creatures by lurking in the water.

With just its eyes and nostrils above the water, an alligator is nearly invisible when it is lying motionless in the shadows.
National Geographic/Getty Images

When lurking, only the eyes and nostrils are above the waterline. If it is lurking in the shadows at a pond's edge, this posture can make an alligator impossible to detect. An alligator can sit like this for hours waiting for something edible to wander nearby. When its prey gets close enough, the alligator moves with startling speed.

Each small black dot is a sensor that is sensitive to vibration.

Besides its eyes and ears, alligators are equipped with skin sensors that are incredibly sensitive to vibration. These sensors make it possible for an alligator to detect anything entering the water or disturbing the surface of the water anywhere nearby.

Once an alligator captures something, it will hold it in its mouth and drag it underwater to drown it. It must then get back above water to swallow it -- otherwise, the alligator's stomach and lungs would fill with water. Using its incredibly powerful jaws (which are able to exert up to 2,000 PSI), an alligator will break bones or crush shells (in the case of turtles) to create a chunk of flesh that can fit down its throat. Then it will raise its head, open the palatal valve and swallow the piece whole. An alligator can digest anything it swallows -- muscle, bone, cartilage, etc. are all digested completely.

Alligators, being cold-blooded, do not have to eat very often. Once a week is a typical feeding schedule for alligators living in the wild. Excess calories are stored in fat deposits at the base of the alligator's tail. Incredibly, by burning fat reserves, it is possible for an alligator to last more than two years between feedings.

More to Explore