A young alligator yawning. Permission granted by Rod Ostoski. http://www.pbase.com/rod_ostoski/alligators (10/17/11)
The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is one of the country’s most dangerous apex predators (O'Connell et al., 2007). Alligators live in heterogeneous enviornments close to bodies of fresh water (Mertz, 2004). The alligator can exceed 6 meters in length, and generally feeds on anything from fish to mammals including deer and cattle (Mertz, 2004). As ectotherms, alligators’ thermal biology is largely dependent on environmental temperatures. Thus, alligators are confined to tropical regions such as the Southeast United States (Cash and Campbell, 2008). However, alligators are able to thermoregulate and can withstand more extreme temperatures than their metabolic rates would suggest (Asa et al., 1998). Such thermoregulatory mechanisms have enabeled alligators to inhabit regions as far north as North Carolina (Subalusky et al., 2009). There has even been an alligator spotted in Pennsylvania! (Brandt and Mazzotti, 1990)
Thermoregulation is the process by which animals actively maintain their body temperature within a specific range of temperatures (Bakken, 2008). Because metabolic reactions are dependent on body temperature, animals must sustain their internal temperature within an optimal range to maximize the rates of temperature-dependent physiological functions and increase fitness, or modify the physiological rates themselves (Seebacher and Guderley et al., 2003; Seebacher and Elsey et al., 2003). Alligators employ several thermoregulatory mechanisms to stabilize their body temperature near their thermal preference, including biochemical acclimatization, behavioral changes, and physiological regulation (Seebacher, 2005; Asa et al., 1998; Smith, 1976). Each of these mechanisms will be discussed in greater detail on their respective pages, linked on the bottom of this page.
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