In 1987 the Florida legislature designated the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) as the official state reptile. Long an unofficial symbol of the state, the alligator originally symbolized Florida's extensive untamed wilderness and swamps. Alligators are found throughout Florida and in parts of other southeastern states. They prefer lakes, swamps, canals, and other wetland habitats. They eat fish, turtles, and a variety of other animals. In late June and early July, female alligators usually lay thirty to fifty eggs in mound-shaped nests made of reeds and other vegetation. Baby alligators hatch after an incubation period of about two months. When hatched, alligators are already fully developed and about eight inches long. Mature alligators usually range from six to twelve feet in length, with females rarely exceeding nine feet. Because alligators are cold-blooded, we often see them sunning on logs or on banks near water. Gators can move surprisingly fast over short distances, and their powerful jaws and swinging tails make them dangerous to approach. Female alligators are particularly aggressive when guarding their nests. Alligators should not be fed, since this causes them to lose their fear of humans, and feeding is against Florida statutes. Today, the alligator is no longer on the endangered-species list, because the reptile has successfully repopulated itself after having been over-exploited by illegal hide hunters. Alligators are now under controlled management by the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission to preserve the species and the wetland habitats that they and other Florida wildlife inhabit.
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