To many, the American alligator is known simply as an apex predator. They’re terrors of the freshwater wetlands of the Southeastern United States, mammoth-sized reptiles capable of eating their prey in a single bite.
Despite their terrifying appearance, however, alligators aren’t unfeeling killing machines. On the contrary, mother alligators are quite affectionate toward their young.
On spring nights, American alligators will gather to perform “water dances” for prospective mates. To prepare for her coming brood, the mother gator will then build a nest of sticks, leaves, and mud near the water. There, she will lay 20-50 eggs, warming them with a vegetation cover and guarding them against other predators.
When the babies hatch, the mother scoops them into her mouth and carries them to the water. From there, the hatchlings are protected by the mother for at least a year, sometimes more. During that first year, she teaches the babies to eat small animals in and near the water, including snails, worms, and small fish.
Juvenile alligators can remain with their mother for up to three years. At that age, they’re close to four feet in length, at which point they no longer need protection, as they’re virtually invulnerable in the wild.
Even with only three legs, a mother alligator will do everything she can to protect her babies, as illustrated by a heartwarming scene the Living With Gators account caught on video.
“I got to witness this incredible moment where momma gator hatched her nest and carried her babies in her mouth to the water’s edge,” they wrote in the caption on Facebook. “[She] is now protecting her babies with her life with just 3 limbs.”
“If this doesn’t show you how incredibly fascinating and resilient these creatures are, I don’t know what will,” they continued. “They’re totally misunderstood.”
Alligators Have a Unique Parenting Style Among Reptiles
Believe it or not, the gentle care shown by the three-legged alligator is typical for the species. It’s not, however, so common among reptiles as a whole.
“Some lizards and snakes do provide some level of limited parental care,” Coleman M. Sheehy, a Florida herpetologist, explained to Newsweek. “But most species do not provide any care. Crocodilians (e.g., alligators), however, are very different.”
“With crocodilians, parental care is actually the norm rather than the exception,” he continued. “Parental care is extremely well developed in alligators.”
According to Sheehy, though reptiles are thought not to have the depth of emotions of mammals, alligators do feel love toward their babies.
“Emotions such as love are caused by hormones, which are part of the endocrine system,” he said. “The endocrine systems of mammals and crocodilians are surprisingly similar. So there is good reason to think mother alligators would feel love towards their young.”