Are There Alligators in Illinois?

Are There Alligators in Illinois?

In recent years, alligators have extended their habitat from the Southern states upwards and spread out into other states. Reasons for this are mostly people releasing pet alligators, but global warming also has a significant effect on the places where alligators, which usually thrive in warm climates, can survive.

But how far northwards do the gators move? Are there alligators in Illinois? 

Yes, alligators have been found in Illinois, but only those that have either escaped capture or that have been released by an overwhelmed owner – despite it being illegal to keep alligators as pets in Illinois.

Even though animal abandonment is a crime in the state, too, those who release their exotic pets usually do not see another way out of a living situation with an animal that they are not equipped to care for. And, after all, tracing an illegal alligator back to its owner is close to impossible. 

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In 2019, an alligator nicknamed Chance the Snapper has been captured after a week-long game of hide-and-seek in Humboldt Park in Chicago. City officials were not equipped to deal with this animal, so that Frank Robb, an alligator expert from Florida, had to be brought in to help catch the five-foot-long reptile. 

One year before, an alligator had been found in Lake Michigan – with its mouth taped shut. This time, there was no need for an experienced gator-catcher, since the 23-year-old fisherman who spotted the animal was able to pull it to the shore with the help of his lure. 

The alligator was in a weak state of health and only about four feet long when found. Aside from the tape around its snout, which gave it no opportunity to eat, the water in Lake Michigan is also much too cold for alligators to survive in. After its capture, the alligator was placed under heat lamps in a wildlife center so that it was able to warm up and recover

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What Do Alligators Do During Winter? 

Since alligators need a warm environment, you might be wondering how they survive cold temperatures in the wild. As reptiles, alligators are cold-blooded, which means that they rely on their environment for regulating their body temperature. In winter, they brumate – this is basically the reptile equivalent to what in mammals is called hibernation! 

Brumation differs from hibernation in that the animals do not fall into a deep sleep. Instead, they only slumber for most of the time, but still have periods where they are active. Their metabolic rate slows down so that they do not need to eat, but they still drink to avoid dehydration. 

Brumating alligators turn very lethargic and spend most of the time in mud holes they created for warmth and shelter. Some of these burrows and dens are in the banks of lakes and ponds, and many of them are even under water.

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According to Andrew Gosse, a South Carolina biologist, the ground around them insulates them and keeps them warm and they have little pockets of air that allow them to breathe. 

Baby Alligator
Baby Alligator

Some alligators even follow a method called icing: they lie submerged in a lake that is frozen with only their snout sticking out through the ice so that they can breathe! As long as the water around them is still liquid, the alligators will not freeze, either.

This is not even the wildest thing animals do to get through winter – some wood frogs that are native to the Finger Lakes region in the state of New York freeze solid during winter so that even their heartbeat stops, and then thaw during spring and get on with their little frog business as if nothing unusual had happened. 

On warmer winter days when the sun is out, alligators do what is called basking – they come out of their dens and lie in the sun, basically refueling. This is made possible by the ridges along their backs, called scutes.

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These are bone plates that act as heat conductors – think of the bone plates of the Stegosaurus that are usually assumed to aid in thermoregulation! These scutes also contain blood vessels, and the blood that is warmed up by the sun is then distributed through the rest of the body. 

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Rosa Nowak

Rosa is a German-Canadian writer, a PhD student of English literature, and an amateur natural science enthusiast.