NEW AND DOCUMENTED EVIDENCE SHOWS THAT ALLIGATORS WILL EAT SHARKS
A new and slightly disturbing study out of Kansas State University presents us all with unexpected new understanding of alligator behavior in the wild. Alligators will eat a wide variety of fare if presented with the opportunity, and now we know they will happily eat shark if it’s an option.
ALLIGATORS HAVE CLASSIC “SEE FOOD” DIET, WILL EAT WHATEVER PRESENTS ITSELF
That opportunity itself is one of the behaviors that defines alligators. Their scientific name is Alligator mississippiensis, and gators fall into a category of behavior called ‘opportunistic feeder,” which in not dissimilar to the old joke of the “see food diet.” Alligators of course have their preferred meals like fish, snails and crustaceans, but they will also tear into anything worthwhile so long as it’s available.
SHARKS ANS ALLIGATORS HAVE MUCH MORE INTERACTION THAN PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT
New research recently published in Southeastern Naturalist shows that American alligators—in a manifestation of predator-on-predator action—periodically grab and eat sharks. This new study released by Kansas State University researcher James Nifong and IMSS wildlife biologist Russell Lowers, provides the first scientific evidence clearly illustrating that this behavior is real, and that much more interaction exists between the two species than previously understood.
500 ALLIGATORS CAPTURED, STOMACHS PUMPED AND CATALOGUED FOR STUDY
For the study, Nifong briefly captured 500 living alligators and emptied their stomachs to see what they’d been eating. He and Lowers identified four different species of sharks, including the nurse shark, and even stingrays (another surprise and previously undocumented prey animal). These sharks, also called elasmobranchs, might not be as big as many of the ones featured on Shark Week, but they are real sharks.
SHARKS AND GATORS CAN BOTH CROSS THE SALT, FRESH WATER, BARRIER, IF ONLY BRIEFLY
This all seems somewhat unlikely given that alligators are a freshwater species, while sharks are a saltwater species, but it’s not that unusual for sharks and rays to wander into freshwater areas. At the same time, alligators are also able to travel between freshwater and marine habitats; gators don’t have salt glands, which filter salt water (like crocodiles), but that doesn’t prevent them from making these journeys.
“Alligators seek out fresh water in high-salinity environments,” said Nifong in a statement. “When it rains really hard, they can actually sip fresh water off the surface of the salt water. That can prolong the time they can stay in a saltwater environment.”
TAGGED GATORS SHOW EATING SHARKS EXTENDS FROM GEORGIA COAST, DOWN AND AROUND FLORIDA AND BACK UP THE GULF
The researchers also tagged the gators with GPS transmitters to track their patters of movement. They observed the reptiles as they traveled between freshwater sources and estuaries, i.e. a partially enclosed coastal water body where freshwater and saltwater mix. Estuaries host shark nurseries—which hungry alligators find too tempting to resist.
Before this new study, only anecdotal examples of such feeding habits existed, including some observed from an island off the Georgia coast. But today there’s evidence of these interactions in a wide swathe from the Atlantic coast of Georgia around the Florida peninsula to the Gulf Coast and Florida panhandle. Naturalists and zoologists are realigning their understanding with the fact that sharks and rays are more relevant to the gator’s diet than previously realized.
Interestingly, this is fascinating case of “reciprocal predation.” These two predators are now known to hunt and eat each other.
“The frequency of one predator eating the other is really about size dynamic,” Nifong said “If a small shark swims by an alligator and the alligator feels like it can take the shark down, it will, but we also reviewed some old stories about larger sharks eating smaller alligators.”
Specifically, Nifong hunted down news reports from the 19th century that described crazy scenes in which large groups of sharks and alligators were engaged in crazy battles after flooding and high tides brought the two predators together. In one account, sharks were attracted to blood from gators feeding on fish, but when the alligators were washed out to sea, the sharks attacked.
Wow, can nature ever be brutal, as well as constantly surprising.