As adults, alligators are foreboding reptiles with few predators; however, many animals hunt alligator hatchlings. American alligators exhibit a remarkable degree of parental care and investment for a reptile -- only their avian relatives provide a similar level of care for their young. To help them survive, mothers often guard the eggs during incubation, release them from the nest upon hatching and escort them to the relative safety of the water, where they will guard them for some time.
Nest Construction and Egg Deposition
Alligators typically begin courting during the late spring, and breeding is under way by early summer. In June and July, the females begin building nests on dry ground, out of vegetation, sticks and reeds. The females deposit 30 to 50 eggs in the nest and cover it back up. The females will venture to the water, but stay close to the nest so they can protect their eggs. Raccoons are important nest predators, and consume many eggs.
Calling For Mom
Shortly before hatching, the young alligators -- still inside their eggs -- begin vocalizing. The vocalizations have two purposes: synchronize the hatching of the siblings and attract the mother to the nest. When hatching begins, mother alligators venture to the nests and begin opening them. Using their powerful jaws, mother alligators gently lift the babies and carry them to the water. This may take a while, as she can only carry a few hatchlings at a time, and the nest may produce dozens of young alligators.
Once in the water, the young alligators tend to stay close to their mother and form social groups called pods. These pods offer the young some protection; however, it is their large and intimidating mother that provides most of their protection. When the young are in distress they emit calls that get her attention, and bring her to their aid. Few predators are bold enough to attempt to eat hatchlings when their mother is near.
Time to Move On
Mother alligators cannot provide this care indefinitely -- at a point, the growing young will compete with her for food and resources. The period of protection varies from one individual to the next; most mother alligators provide protection for a few months, but some provide protection for their young for up to a year. At this point, the female must start preparing to protect the new young, as they begin hatching from their nests.
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