Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/January 1899/Our Florida Alligator



AN alligator is not an attractive creature. He has not a single-virtue that can be named. He is cowardly, treacherous, hideous. He is neither graceful nor even respectable in appearance. He is not even amusing or grotesque in his ungainliness, for as a brute—a brute unqualified—he is always so intensely real, that one shrinks from him with loathing; and a laugh at his expense while in his presence would seem curiously out of place.

His personality, too, is strong. Once catch the steadfast gaze of a free, adult alligator's wicked eyes, with their odd vertical pupils fixed full upon your own, and the significance of the expression "evil eye," and the mysteries of snake-charming, hypnotism, and hoodooism will be readily understood, for his brutish, merciless, unflinching stare is simply blood-chilling.

Zoölogically the alligator belongs to the genus Crocodilus, and he has all the hideousness of that family, lacking somewhat its bloodthirstiness, although the American alligator is carnivorous by nature, and occasionally cannibalistic. Strictly speaking, however, the true alligator is much less dangerous than his relatives of the Old World, and he is correspondingly less courageous.

One would suppose the saurians, or crocodilians, from their general appearance to be huge lizards, but the resemblance is superficial. The whole internal structure differs widely, and, subdivided into gavials, crocodiles, and alligators, they form a family by themselves which is widespread, extending into considerable areas of the temperate regions.

All crocodilians are great, ungainly reptiles, having broad, depressed bodies, short legs, and long, powerful, and wonderfully flexible tails which are compressed—that is, flattened sideways. Upon the upper surface of the tail lie two jagged or saw-toothed crests, which unite near the middle of the appendage, continuing in a single row to the extremity.

All have thick necks and bodies protected by regular transverse rows of long, horny plates or shields, which are elevated in the center into keel-shaped ridges, forming an armor that is quite bullet-proof. The throat, the under side of the neck, and belly are not thus protected, and it is at these places, as well as at the eyes, and also just behind the ears, that the hunter directs his aim.

The principal points of difference between a gavial and a crocodile are these: the former has very long, slender jaws, set with twenty-seven teeth in each side of the upper jaw and with twenty-five teeth in the under, while at the extremity of the snout there are two holes, through which pass upward the lower large front teeth, but all the remaining teeth are free, and slant well outward; whereas a crocodile has a head that is triangular, the snout being the apex; a narrow muzzle, and canine teeth in the lower jaw, which pass freely upward in the notches in the side of the upper jaw.

An alligator has a broad, flat muzzle, and the canine teeth of the lower jaw fit into sockets in the under surface of the upper jaw. It is strictly an American form of the family. Its feet being much less webbed, its habits are also less perfectly aquatic, and, preferring still or stagnant fresh-water courses or swamps, it is rarely found in tide-water streams.

The crocodile, on the contrary, is commonly found in swift-running, fresh and salt water rivers. He is a sagacious brute, and ferocious, often attacking human beings without provocation; but the alligator, as a rule, is not disposed to fight, although in South America, where it goes by the name of caiman or cayman, it grows to an enormous size, and is said to be fully as dangerous as the crocodile. There is also a variety of the family—that is, a true crocodile—found in Florida, but it is very rare, and smaller than its Asiatic relative.

The mouths of all these reptiles, which are large and extend beyond the ears, present a formidable array of sharp, conical teeth of different sizes, set far apart in the crocodile and the alligator, some being enlarged into tusks. All are implanted in separate sockets, and form a single row upon each jaw. When a tooth is shed or broken, a new one promptly comes up beneath the hollow base of the old one; and in this way, all ready for the need, sometimes three or four waiting teeth, packed together like a nest of thimbles, may be seen in the jaw of a dead alligator.

The alligator is at best an awkward brute. Slow and ungainly upon land—although even there his powerful tail can, when necessary,

PSM V54 D348 Young pet alligator.jpg

Young Pet Alligator. From photograph by E. L. Russell, Palm Beach.

assist the scuffling paws to an astonishing extent if the creature is in haste—he shows to better advantage in the water. There he turns his clumsy body with wonderful dexterity and swiftness, when, at the sight of a swimming muskrat or a wading dog, he instantly changes from what has resembled a drifting log idly floating upon the calm surface of the swamp, into a thing of life—fierce and horrible.

The general food of an alligator is fish, turtles, and frogs, with an occasional heedless dog or fowl. A number of adult alligators will quickly deplenish a small, clear-water lake of its finny inhabitants, which statement to would-be Florida fishermen will readily account for the lack in many localities. There is also a curious belief in the South that the creature has an especial liking for a "darkey steak," and for this reason he is feared by the negroes. That he becomes carnivorous to a dangerous extent when pressed by hunger, there is no doubt, for, the supply of fish exhausted, he must look for larger game.

Partially concealed by rubbish, or floating idly close to the bank—always only a short distance from his retreat—he so closely resembles an old and weather-worn log that no suspicion is aroused. Presently a razorback comes down the narrow trail that meanders through the scrub and passes close to the reptile. Let it pass between the alligator and the water—that is, between the creature and his cave—and the end has come. An alligator seldom misses, and one spring, leap, or plunge, or whatever the swift, clumsy movement may be called, and the wretched animal is seized and held fast, either by the nose or leg, as a rule. Then the struggle begins, for the razorback loves its life, despised pig of the Florida flatwoods though it is.

Alligators drown their prey. Their own nostrils and throats are so arranged that they themselves can sink to the bottom without danger of suffocation, although their mouths, or rather their jaws, may be widely stretched with the body of their victim. Indeed, they can reascend to the surface to breathe without releasing the prize; and, as this power is so closely connected with their method of killing the larger animals, a description of the latter, repulsive though it is, may not be out of place.

The teeth of an alligator are better adapted for crushing and crunching than for biting. Therefore, for him to eat a struggling animal would be difficult. Instinct teaches him that it must first be killed.

To dispose of a dog or a chicken is a small matter, for when the alligator meets it upon the bank one strong, far-reaching sweep of the powerful tail tosses it far out upon the lake. The alligator simply follows, grasps the half-stunned creature in his jaws, and disappears beneath the surface, where he remains until all is quiet. With a larger animal, however, he proceeds differently, for the reason that a yearling, a colt, or a razorback is not so easily handled. First, therefore, a description of an alligator's cave must be given, since it is to this grewsome retreat that the hideous brute takes his booty.

Selecting some spot where the water is deep—usually beneath some overhanging bank—an alligator excavates what is called a "cave." Any one, standing upon the border of a lake or swamp in Florida, may, all unconsciously, be directly over one of these places. He makes it sufficiently large to accommodate one or more of his kind, by dragging out the mud and roots with the strong claws or nails that arm his fore paws or legs. These "caves" serve in winter for hibernation, and at other times for the purpose that will be explained.

Once in the water, then—to return to the unhappy razorback—the alligator does not rely wholly upon his teeth and jaws to hold the desperate animal. He can not yet sink, for the victim is too strong'. It must first be drowned, and a furious struggle for the mastery then begins.

By degrees the brute finally succeeds in dragging the animal out into water sufficiently deep to suit his purpose, and then he clasps it firmly with his paws, precisely like the hugging of a bear. He then begins to roll over and over. Now beneath the surface, now out, he turns and turns, first the alligator uppermost, then his prey, alternately, until the poor animal is drowned literally by inches. Before long the razorback weakens, his struggles lessen, and then the alligator sinks to the bottom, and when all motion has ceased he deposits the body in his cave, well pleased with the prospect of a full larder for some time to come.

One might naturally ask just here whether or not this scene would be the same were a human being the victim. The reply would be—precisely.

The alligator undoubtedly prefers his food in a partly decomposed condition, although it is an undecided point whether this preference arises from a natural taste, or for the reason that food in that state is softer and more easily torn apart. Whichever may be the case, Nature unasked supplies the remedy, and the alligator takes advantage of her assistance, and deposits his victim in his hiding place, confident that at the proper time it will rise to the surface in the condition best adapted to his needs.

Although by nature the alligator is amphibious, he passes the greater part of his time upon land during the breeding season. At such times, also, he migrates from one clear-water lake or swamp to another, should he not find a mate in his own locality, and he may not infrequently be met in his overland journeyings. Alligators are not strictly gregarious, although large numbers are found in the same body of water; while, on the contrary, there will often be but one or two that will haunt a certain tract for a long period.

During this season the bull alligator is very noisy, and his deep bellowing may be heard for a long distance. To state that this noise causes the ground to vibrate may seem an exaggeration, but the fact may easily be proved by visiting a swamp where the reptiles have congregated. The water in the vicinity will plainly show the jarring of the ground.

This bellow is a thundering, rumbling sound; and when it is combined with the startling hisses, blowings, sighs, and deep-breathed snorts which the creature can produce at will, no one will be likely to dispute that his collection of diabolical noises is quite complete.

During the period of incubation the female alligator is a devoted mother. She does not desert her nest from the time that the eggs are laid until they are hatched—lying concealed in the scrub close by—and she is naturally, at this time, most dangerous to approach, although her vigilance does not always save a portion of her unhatched progeny from the numerous enemies that have a fondness for alligator omelet.

The nest is a large, well-rounded heap or mound, composed of sand and rubbish, which she drags and pushes together with her

PSM V54 D351 Group of captive alligators.jpg

Group of Captive Alligators. From photograph by O. P. Hareus, Jacksonville.

claws. Throughout this mound she deposits her eggs, from forty to seventy and over. These eggs resemble those of a goose, only that they are larger; they have a thick, tough shell, and are of about the same size at both ends. In about sixty days, the heat of the sun, combined with the warmth and moisture generated by the fermentation of the rubbish, completes the process of incubation, and the little ones begin to come forth.

Forcing their way through the sand, they hurry down the sloping sides of the mound, straightway seeking the water by instinct. While these baby 'gators are thus kicking and flinging off their shell overcoats as they emerge from their incubator, perfect little duplicates of their mother—only that they are rather pretty in their clean, glossy, black or dark-brown skins, which have orange-colored stripes that completely ring their miniature tails and bodies—she wanders anxiously about, probably wondering how many of her family will succeed in running the very uncertain gantlet of life.

For, eaten while in the egg stage by birds and animals, and swallowed by open-mouthed, expectant fishes, and by other alligators—often led, if the truth must be told, by the interesting father himself—as soon as they reach the water, the early days of an alligator are full of trouble. That enough escape to prevent extinction, however, goes almost without saying.

Alligators are hunted for their teeth, which find a ready market when made up into pretty ornaments; and of late years extensively for their hides, which make a very handsome leather. For this purpose the older specimens are not valuable, their hides being too gnarled, knotty, and moss-grown to tan well. After ten or fifteen years the hide coarsens. It is always the skin from the under side of the body and head which is used, that from the back being so heavily armored with tough, horny plates and shields as to be practically useless. The flesh for food finds but few admirers. Like the eggs, it is permeated by a strong, musky flavor, too rank to find appreciation from a refined palate; but in some places the steaks from the reptile are eaten by the negroes and pronounced good.

To successfully hunt the alligator requires experience, for quick work is necessary, the brute disappearing at the least suspicion of danger. Hunting by "jack" is the usual method pursued, for the light seems to charm the creature, so that he may be more easily detained until a properly directed bullet speedily puts an end to his existence.

A professional alligator hunter, or a "'gator man," as he is called, leads a life full of adventure, but his business is upon the wane, since the fad for alligator leather is being pushed aside to make way for something later and more novel. Nevertheless, a description of his outfit may not be uninteresting.

A most important adjunct to this outfit is the man who usually accompanies the 'gator man upon his expeditions. He might properly be called the silent partner, for his duty is to instantly and silently obey the different hand signals, meaning "To the right," "To the left," "Stop," "Back," "Hurry," "Forward," "Spurt," "Slow," given by the hunter, while standing erect in the bow of the boat, when out with the "jack." Indeed, upon his alertness depends much of the success or failure of the night's work.

The other tools used by the 'gator man are a light, strong boat, a pair of light oars and a broad-bladed paddle with a four-foot handle, neatly coiled rope, a jack lamp furnished with a powerful reflector, an axe, a long, keen-bladed hunting knife, two guns (twelve-bore breech-loaders, for a heavy charge at one delivery is absolutely necessary), bags of ammunition, some strong chains, rawhide rope, and a 'gator pole. This last-mentioned "tool" is a stout pole about ten feet long, armed with a heavy hook of quarter-inch iron, bearing a barbed shank of two inches or more, and it is used for hauling the dead alligators from the bottom, for the creatures sink as soon as killed.

The brilliant rays from the "jack" reveal a curious and a grewsome sight when thrown upon a bank or island upon which a group of the creatures have congregated. The shining waters of the swam]), so still and black at that hour of midnight; the hideous tangle of huge gray forms, as a dozen or more alligators, fairly intoxicated by the gleam of the mysterious light, steadfastly watch its incomprehensible presence. Gazing intently, their evil eyes blood-red in the glare from the powerful reflector, some lie motionless, others roar and hiss and snort with thrilling fierceness as the mystery deepens, incessantly arching their bodies, then alternately depressing them to the ground. Still others, crawling from beneath their companions, scuffle angrily to the front, and stand with jaws partly open—now and then slowly inflating their lungs, until their throats and sides puff out like bellows. Yet, strange to say, instinct seems to warn the mother alligator, for there she may be seen quietly creeping away with her young.

Then, the loud reports from the guns, and the mystery is dispelled! The island is deserted, and the work of raising the successfully shot saurians begins.

Boards of rural engineering, syndicates of specialists organized in several of the countries of northern Europe to look after drainage and irrigation, have rendered great services to the populations of the country districts. With their aid 591 villages in Alsace-Lorraine were provided with water between 1881 and 1895, and 516 communes in Baden have been benefited by their assistance. The expense of the improvement has not exceeded $6.61 (33 francs) per inhabitant. The Agricultural Bureau in Prussia has in the past five years drawn the plans and directed the work of 554 hydraulic syndicates, covering a total surface of more than 600,000 acres. A numerous body of these agricultural engineers is formed every year in Germany, 517 students having pursued the course of the section of rural engineering in 1893 in the agronomical institutes of Bonn and Berlin alone.

It is generally accepted that the spider is a solitary animal, that will tolerate no companions, even the male being in danger of being devoured by his female. But a spider—the Stregodyphus gregarius—is described as living in the Transvaal in communities, including males and females, young and old. The nests are sometimes voluminous and have partitions and numerous passages running through them. The spiders usually escape observation by wrapping themselves in dry leaves that hang from stems.