Tender is the Bite

By staff February 1, 2003

Alligators don't send valentines. Neither do they bill and coo. But that doesn't mean they're not intensely romantic-even passionate-in a reptilian sort of way.

For alligators, Valentine's Day falls in late March and lasts over two months. while mature males emerge from their wetland habitats and go looking for love. It's said that over a million gators now patrol Florida's rivers, swamps and wetlands, so each spring tens of thousands of robust, healthy males slither forth in search of amour, making risky, unwelcome man-gator face-offs pretty much a fait accompli. Consequently, they keep licensed gator wranglers busy pulling wayward bulls off golf course fairways and out of suburban swimming pools.

During the mating season, competition among territorial rivals is intense, and bull gators that once coexisted peacefully now engage in vicious battles that can leave one or both mortally injured. Only the victors are allowed to mate. Alligator courtship takes place mostly at night, discreetly hidden from prying eyes. The ritualistic behavior that precedes procreation is complex, mysterious, and little changed since the days of the dinosaurs.

While the bulls deal brutally with rival males, they treat prospective mates with surprising tenderness, grunting softly, rubbing their bodies, biting them gently and even blowing bubbles against their cheeks. Mating takes place in shallow, open water. Male gators aren't monogamous, and over the course of a season a strong and aggressive bull may have several partners.

Around the end of June, gravid females crawl ashore to lay their eggs in nests they build from mud and rotting plants. Each nest holds about 40 eggs. If the nests aren't excavated by raccoons or submerged by summer floods, the eggs will hatch in 65 days.

Meanwhile, down in the shallows, all is forgiven. The big bulls that once sought to tear each other limb from limb now snooze in the warm mud side-by-side. A semblance of calm returns to the swamp.

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