Where can I find an alligator?” That is a common question at the Jekyll Island Guest Information Center, and I understand why. Alligators are fascinating, prehistoric-looking creatures. And our fascination with them can sometimes get us into trouble.

The American Alligator, which is the species that lives around here, is a member of the crocodilian family. Most of this family live in the tropical climate and are the apex predators in their environments. The natural range for these creatures extends from coastal areas along North Carolina to the shorelines of Texas. They are cold-blooded, so they rarely go above the fall line. When coming across one, it’s wise to give them a wide berth.

It is not surprising to find out that this fear of alligators led to the hunting of the American Alligator right to the brink of extinction. When I was growing up in Natchez, Mississippi, there were no alligators around me. We could swim in several of the oxbow lakes near the Mississippi River. I never thought about alligators. Today, those same lakes are now teeming with alligators. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 helped save the alligators from extinction, and the animals were removed from the list in 1987.

Why should we care if they go extinct? Well, everything has its place in this world, and alligators are equalizers that help keep our ecosystem in balance. Their favorite foods are raccoons, opossum, deer, fish, snakes, and turtles. Others use alligators for protection. Our herons, egrets, spoonbills, storks, and nightherons look for lakes with alligators to guard them from raccoons and opossum. While an alligator only takes the birds that fall out of the nest, one raccoon can wipe out an entire rookery in a night.

It is a funny kind of relationship. I watched a momma gator sitting near her den one day. Yes, alligators are wonderful mothers — they watch over their babies for about three years — and this gator had all her children around her. They ranged from newly hatched to some that were about 3 feet long. There are a few of the small newly hatched babies basking on her back. Over the mother, there was a limb with a Great Egret. This egret was eyeing the young alligators as a tasty snack. It was fascinating. Would the egret get its snack? Or would that foolish bird be a snack? Eventually, the egret gave up and moved on. Smart move!

Alligators are fascinating creatures. To learn more about these creatures, think about taking the Georgia Sea Turtle Center’s Gatorology 101. It is a fun and safe way to learn about our American Alligators.