Alligators can face many threats in their life, mostly from humans but also from other alligators. The journey from the nest to the top of the food chain is not an easy one, especially in the first few years. Given the chance though, they can live good, long lives. But exactly how long do alligators live? and what factors influence their potential to reach old age?
In this post we will take a look at how long gators live, if there is a notable difference across the species and if there is a difference between wild and captive life expectancies.
How Long Do Alligators Live?
The average lifespan for an alligator is between 35 to 50 years. There are reports of wild gators living much longer than this, and several examples in captivity. But as an average, 35 to 50 years is widely accepted as the average life expectancy.
The lifespan of an alligator is determined by many factors, such as diet, habitat, and whether or not they are in captivity. In the wild, alligators have much to contend with, including habitation loss from human encroachment. The young are also at risk from predators.
While alligators mature into apex predators, humans have been historically, and still are the biggest threat to their population.
Alligators in captivity can live much longer because they are protected from environmental pressures, there is a greater chance of reaching maturity and there is controlled access to food and medical care. There are also areas that have been given protected status to take the pressure off alligator habitats, particularly in China. The Anhui National Nature Reserve for Chinese Alligators is a prime example of this.
The First Few Years
The first few years of an alligators life can be tough. In fact in some areas, up to 4 out of every 5 alligators don’t make it to maturity.
It’s easy to think that as apex predators at the top of the food chain that they don’t have to worry about attack. But young alligators are often the victim of predators, including:
- Birds of Prey
- Large fish
It’s rare for reptile species to have protective paternal instincts for their offspring, but alligators, as well as other crocodilian species are one of the rare exceptions that do. females are fiercely protective of their young.
American alligators grow around 1 foot per year until they reach about the age of 4. At this stage they are generally safe from attack by predators. They are still vulnerable to humans and other alligators, but threats from competing species are, for the most part, a thing of the past. At this stage the gator is top of the food chain.
By the time the American alligator reaches sexual maturity (around 10-11 years old), males will be around 11ft and females 9ft long on average. Both species of alligator grow quicker during the first five years, and the pace slows approaching maturity.
Chinese alligators are only about half as big, reaching about 5-7 ft in adulthood. While there are less natural predators of the wild Chinese alligator, their eggs are vulnerable to some species of bird and fish.
How long do alligators live in captivity?
Many zoos and captive breeding programmes have reported alligators living between 65-80 years. It would seem that when different environmental pressures are removed, that this has a direct impact on their survivability and therefore life expectancy. Captive programmes have also allowed us to collect data on the life expectancy across species of alligator.
Do American Alligators live longer than Chinese Alligators?
It looks like American alligators might live slightly longer than Chinese alligators, based on those in captivity. The oldest captive alligators on record, into their 80s, are all of the American species.
Chinese gators are known to live to around 70 in captive programmes though. They can also reproduce into their 50s. So while the gap does seem to exist, it’s not by much. As the number of Chinese alligators in the wild is very low, and captive programmes were not widespread until the last few decades, many of the existing reptiles are still to reach old age. More data may show that the gap is wider, or smaller.
Do Alligators live longer than crocodiles?
Alligators and crocodiles have similar life spans, but crocodiles have been recorded as living longer. In the wild a crocodile can commonly reach 70, and in captivity they are known to have lived over 100 years. Some crocodiles live longer than others. The Nile Crocodile for example, doesn’t live as long as the Saltwater crocodile on average.
Impact of Habitat on lifespan
We mentioned before that young alligators are often the victim of predators, but in some regions they do better than others. In China for example, while eggs are still at risk from some species of fish and bird, wild Chinese alligators are less vulnerable to predation. Partly because there are less competing species in their range. But also because, as a critically endangered species, they are very well looked after and protected.
Alligators live hot and humid, wet, freshwater environments. But some of these places are also in demand for agriculture. In China for example, alligator habitats were pushed massively to make way for rice farming. Some fertilizers that are toxic to these animals but are used in farming also wash away into the alligators habitat. This has also decimated populations in some places.
Other things that may put pressure on habitats in the future, could include extended periods of drought or flooding caused by climate change.
The Oldest Alligator
The oldest alligator ever recorded in captivity, is an American gator that has been living in Belgrade Zoo since 1937. The alligator, called Muja was at least two years old when he arrived at the zoo but his exact date of hatching is unknown. As he was already sexually mature when he arrived at the Zoo, he may have been 10-12 years old when he arrived. At any rate, that put’s Muja’s age at 85 years old at the very least, possibly 95!
Other old alligators include:
- Saturn – American alligator in Moscow Zoo, roughly 85 years old.
- Čabulītis – American alligator in Riga Zoo, roughly 75 years old.
- Smiley – American alligator in the Maritime Museum of Gothenburg, died in 1987 at 65 years old.
Smiley is the only female alligator in this list.
Crocodyloformes (the group encompassing crocodylians and other similar but extinct reptiles) evolved during the Triassic Period, about 248 million years ago. Crocodylians (a group which includes alligators, crocodiles, gharials or gavials, caiman) appeared during the Cretaceous period, about 98 million years ago, towards the end of the Mesozoic Era, the Age of Reptiles.
There are 5 extinct species and 2 extant species of alligator. All species of alligator originated in the North America area. The Chinese species broke away from the American species most likely from a population that travelled across the Bering land bridge into Chine and evolved separately as a remote species.
There were also 8 other species of subfamily Alligatorinae, all of which are now extinct. The only other member of the family Alligatoridae to exist along side the Alligator, are the species of the subfamily Caimaninae.