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An American Alligator eye and top of head pops up above the waterline.

American Alligator

What’s breaking the surface? Not much as far as American alligators are concerned. This stealth hunter's eyes and nostrils are located atop its head, letting it see and breathe while the rest of its body is hidden underwater. Looking like a partly submerged log, the gator sits perfectly still until prey comes within grab-and-gulp distance.

A young American alligator swims with its eye and long snout barely surfacing from the water, the rest of its body hidden beneath.
A young American alligator clambers over the tail of one of its fellows in the Rivers gallery at Shedd.

Outsmarting their prey

American alligators exhibit brainy behaviors traditionally not associated with reptiles: extended parental care, learning, recollection and play. The biggest discovery: They use tools to hunt. During spring, when marsh birds are searching for nesting materials, alligators deliberately collect twigs and sticks on top of their snouts, then sit and wait. Lure plus camouflage equals a better chance of a meal of egret or heron.

An American alligator rests on a log in the Rivers Gallery at Shedd Aquarium.

Voice of the gator

Alligators are among the most vocal reptiles, with a wide range of communications. Hatchlings’ squeaks to mom while still in the nest are just a warmup. Like many reptiles, gators issue a warning hiss, but with the volume and force of air escaping a truck tire. To attract a mate, they make deep purring sounds, and males can give off low-frequency vibrations in the water. To define a territory or attract another alligator, adults utter deep, far-reaching bellows not unlike a lion’s roar.

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