Study confirms alligators are eating sharks

Alligators eat sharks and stingrays
An American Alligator has a tight grip on a nurse shark. (Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge)

A new study confirms that alligators on the Atlantic and Gulf coast of the United States are eating small sharks.

The scientific documentation is the first study to establish the extensive interaction between the two species.

To conduct the study the researchers captured hundreds of living alligators, pumped their stomachs to learn what they’ve been eating, and then returned the gators to their natural environment.

“When it rains really hard, they can actually sip fresh water off the surface of the salt water.”

The study was conducted by James Nifong, postdoctoral researcher with the Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Kansas State University, and Russell Lowers, a wildlife biologist with Integrated Mission Support Services at Kennedy Space Center. Their full study was published in the Southeastern Naturalist.

Freshwater alligators and saltwater sharks?

Alligators are a freshwater species and typically live in ponds, marshes, and rivers. But they are known to thrive in brackish environments and can even survive in saltwater environments for limited periods of time.

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“Alligators seek out fresh water in high-salinity environments,” said Nifong. “When it rains really hard, they can actually sip fresh water off the surface of the salt water. That can prolong the time they can stay in a saltwater environment.”

As part of the study, scientists equipped alligators with GPS transmitters to watch their movements. Nifong found that alligators travel between freshwater sources and saltwater sources which house sharks.

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“The frequency of one predator eating the other is really about size dynamic,” Nifong said, “If a small shark swims by an alligator and the alligator feels like it can take the shark down, it will, but we also reviewed some old stories about larger sharks eating smaller alligators.”

Alligators eating small sharks and large sharks eating alligators is not unheard of, there are unscientific accounts of the two hunting each other. But Nifong’s research proves that the interaction is way more common than initially thought.

Evidence from the new study supports gator and shark interaction along the Atlantic coast of Georgia and Florida and around the Gulf Coast of the southern United States.

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