National Geographic Daily News
An alligator surfacing.

American alligator (file photo). Photograph by Mark Williams, My Shot

Ker Than

National Geographic News

Published July 28, 2010

On a July 10 fishing trip in Georgian reaches of the Okefenokee Swamp, Ray Cason found his way blocked by what looked to him like an alligator feeding frenzy.

Hundreds of alligators packed a roughly 30-foot-wide (9-meter-wide) stretch of canal, jumping over and snapping at each other—all of it caught on a video (watch below) that went viral Wednesday via YouTube, Facebook, CNN, and other media.


Alligator "Feeding Frenzy" Video

 

"I ain't never seen so many gators in my life!" someone can be heard exclaiming in the video, which Cason, 39, posted on YouTube after his foray into 420,000-acre (170,000-hectare) Stephen C. Foster State Park outside the town of Fargo.

Georgia state wildlife biologist Greg Nelms agreed, telling CNN, "I've never seen footage like that before." Such "cooperative feeding" by alligators—a true feeding frenzy is more chaotic—is seen every three or four years in the area, Nelms added.

In general, though, it's not uncommon for American alligators, which can grow to about 15 feet (4.6 meters) long, to engage in cooperative feeding, herpetologist Kenneth Krysko told National Geographic News.

"There could be multiple reasons" for the swarm seen in the viral video, said Krysko, of the University of Florida. "But they're usually known to congregate when they're breeding as well as when they're feeding."

Since American alligators breed in spring and the "feeding frenzy" video was shot in July, predation is the most likely reason for the Okefenokee gator swarm.

(Pictures: Giant Rays' 'Feeding Frenzy' Spots Protected.)

Don't Call It An Alligator Feeding Frenzy

An alligator feeding frenzy tends to occur when the reptiles, fishing in evaporating pools or captive enclosures, engage in a violent free-for-all. The gators clash violently over food and block smaller rivals from feeding, according to the University of Florida website.

Cooperative feeding, by contrast, is pretty much what it sounds like.

Alligators "face into the current and arrange themselves side-by-side in a row across the flow of water"—the better to catch a flood of fish squeezed into a bottleneck in a free-flowing channel, the university site says.

That's apparently just what happened in the Stephen C. Foster State Park canal in the video, where mudfish, or bowfins—common prey for Okefenokee alligators—are said to have been particularly plentiful on July 10.

Other hallmarks of cooperative feeding by alligators: Fighting over prey is relatively rare, and the feeding is so intense that humans and other interlopers are often ignored.

Low water can make alligator congregations more likely too, by forcing fish to stream, en masse, toward deeper water, Krysko said.

(Related video: Humpback Whales' Feeding Frenzy.)

Easing Through the Alligators

In the alligator "feeding frenzy" video, alligators can be seen jumping over one another and attacking each other, presumably while competing for food. Cason estimated there were about 300 alligators gathered.

There was "a lot of noise and a lot of splashing," Cason told local television news station News4Jax.

"I just eased through them and went fishing"—perhaps not the wisest decision, according to the University of Florida's Krysko.

(See a picture of a python that burst after having eaten an alligator in Florida.)

Though Krysko said the alligators were probably not abnormally dangerous during the congregation, he said Cason put himself in danger of falling into the congregation—and risked harming the alligators with his boat.

American alligators "are a protected species," said Kysko, referring to protections afforded by the U.S. Endangered Species Act, even though the species is no longer listed as endangered by the U.S. government. "No one would be allowed to do that if they were manatees, and manatees are protected as well."

Blair Hayman, a biologist with Florida's Alligator Management Program, though, didn't see anything wrong with the fisher motoring through the alligator swarm.

"It doesn't appear that he is doing anything," she said. "He's just boating at normal speed. Typically [alligator] harassment would be if he were poking [an alligator] with a stick or intentionally touching or otherwise disturbing him."

(More video: how to tell alligators from crocodiles.)

It's not illegal for fishers to be near alligators, she added, and sometimes it's downright unavoidable.

More: "Human-Alligator Encounters Rising in U.S. Southeast" >>

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