How to Estimate an Alligator’s Length

“To estimate an alligator’s length, convert the distance in inches
from the tip of the nose to the eye ridge into feet.”

I check it twice. Yes, that’s what it says, apparently dead serious, no pun intended.

The night before visiting St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in Tallahassee, Florida, early in January, I was checking out their website to see what fabulous birds we could expect to see at that time of year. But under the “Wildlife and Habitat” menu option, it’s not birds that catch my eye but, rather, a navigation tab for alligators.

Uh oh. I had not thought about alligators.

“But maybe they’re not around at this time of year,” I think. “Maybe they head south, in search of warmer waters and jerk chicken.”

And so I peruse the write-up, eagerly and hopefully. My eagerness fades as I see it is less an article than a set of largely unconnected facts. My hope fades as I see nothing on migratory patterns of alligators. Or even their vacation plans.

I do, however, turn up other tidbits.

“Alligators can hear underwater.”

All the better to lunge up out of the water at unsuspecting passersby, my dear.

“Don’t approach or tease alligators; even on land they are quite agile.”

The site doesn’t explain how I am supposed to avoid approaching an alligator that is hidden underwater, ears cocked. And, frankly, I resent the implication of the second part of that advice. Do they think I’m the sort of idiot who would tease an animal capable of eating me?

Trying not to take it personally, since it’s just possible it wasn’t targeted exclusively at me, I read on. Since alligators eat mostly small animals, the size of, say, cats and dogs, the site suggests that pets be kept on a leash. It’s hard to see how a leash will help a cat or dog evade an alligator, and we’ve already established that it’s tough to avoid them.

Then I have an awful thought. Maybe the leash is so you can throw the cat or dog to the alligator when it emerges — dripping, grinning, and quite agile — from the swamp. A bit troubled by this spectre of cross-species betrayal (and wondering what kind of person I am that I can even think of such a possibility), I read on, wondering what will happen to any person or animal caught by an alligator.

“Large amounts of strong acids are secreted to aid the digestion of bones from their prey and an occasional rock that was swallowed by mistake.”

Sorry — did it just say that alligators digest rocks? Well, yes it did, but there is some on-the-other-hand good news.

“Alligators have little strength in opening their jaws and with one hand
their jaw can be held closed (Do not try this!).”

There they go again. “Do not try this,” indeed! Good safety tip. Indignation is steadily gaining ground on fear.

Trying to introduce an element of rationality, I reflect that it makes a difference how big alligators get. The site has that information: They average from 6 to 12 feet long, which seems lots big enough to me. But wait, there’s more!

“The unofficial Florida record is 17’5” (Lake Apopka 1956).”

I wonder, a tad uneasily, what made this record unofficial. Maybe the person who measured the alligator was then, umm, unavailable to confirm that measurement? The site is silent on this matter.

Notwithstanding the website, we do visit St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge the next day.

View of salt marshes at St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge

View of salt marshes at St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge

We see stubbornly unmigrated alligators: six, not that I was actually, you know, counting. How many were listening to us surreptitiously, underwater, I can’t say. But I can say that we’re pretty sure we set a new record for alligator length, at least in Florida. Herewith, the photographic evidence.


Having heard something underwater, an alligator surfaces to check us out.

Having heard something underwater, an alligator surfaces to check us out.


Behemoth alligator, cleverly hiding nose tip and eye ridge to defy accurate size estimation

Behemoth alligator, cleverly hiding nose tip and eye ridge to defy accurate size estimation

Of course, in all the excitement it’s just possible that I misoverestimated the length in inches from nose tip to eye ridge. Feel free to visit St. Mark’s to take more precise measurements yourself. Just remember to take a small animal with you. On a leash.


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12 Responses to How to Estimate an Alligator’s Length

  1. You are reminding me why I was so very happy to depart from Florida after living there for just five months. The statistics you want to be able to calculate are the distance between you and the subject of the photo op and speed in feet per second. My first visit featured a stop at the lake near the University of Gainesville where my to-be-husband taught folklore and English. What was that swimming leisurely in our direction? One alligator, two, three? Where were the barriers to protect sightseers? “Don’t worry, they are part of the bio research department and they feed them.” My beloved was mentioning how fast they can travel on land — something above 30 mph for short distances? — but I was beating a hasty retreat to the car. Do they chase cars? Meals on wheels? Something that can run faster than a horse is not to be photographed lightly.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Yikes. No, not taken lightly, indeed. We saw alligators on Bull Island a few years ago – dragging themselves from one pond to another, across the road down which we were travelling – and it was quite a start. Lots to be said for colder climes!

  2. No comment. [It is just too grizzly to contemplate — being a pet on a leash.]

  3. Judith says:

    And how would you estimate in the metric system? And could the same method of estimating work with crocodiles? Or other animals, including small pets?

    Loved your post!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – Thanks! I guess it must be about half as many feet as centimetres – to mix systems – and that’s the best I can do. I haven’t researched other rules of thumb for estimating size – if they’re all as helpful as this one, it’s a field that needs some work!

  4. Jim Taylor says:

    Two slightly conflicting ideas occur to me — neither of them having anything to do with hurling small pets at carnivorous reptiles as a distraction (or bribe, perhaps).
    One: Michael Dowd did a wonderful TED talk on the human brain. He called that portion right at the top of the spinal column the “reptile brain” — the part that doesn’t think at all, but just reacts, usually malevolently. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes command of the more reasoned brain centres.
    Two: on a nature program, I learned that even crocs and alligators have mothering instincts. Although they lay eggs, which hatch without maternal assistance, the mother alligator will fiercely defend her young, both before and after they hatch from their shells.
    Maybe they do have something more than just a “reptile brain.” But I don’t think alligators etc. have been successfully domesticated….
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – I know of no attempts to domesticate crocs or alligators, although I guess the babies are cute (as all babies seem to be). Tough to bond with an animal that’s wired to see pretty much everything as lunch.

  5. Marjorie Gibson says:

    In Australia we were introduced to alligators at a reptile park. Demonstration showed they can leap a whole body length out of the water and into the air – to catch food dangled above them (or bird, unwary person, etc). With their catch in mouth, they go underwater to eat!!
    Then, believe it or not, we were out on a path and ran into a sign saying, “Alligators Seen On This Path.” We beat a hasty retreat.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Mom – That bit about jumping a body length out of the water is approaching “too much information.” I think I’m glad I didn’t know that when we were down there!

  6. Jim Robertson says:

    Reminds me of my “intro” to alligator.

    – My uncle had a house in Florida that backed onto a pond. As most ponds like that, an alligator moved in. Some of the residents started going to pond’s edge and fed it marshmallows.

    – At Shark Valley, a birding hotspot in Florida, the gators sun themselves on the road/pathway alongside the “canal” that separates humans from the nesting birds. The alligators are referred to as “speed bumps” by the drivers of the trams that take visitors on a tour of the Everglades park.

    I must admit that we were a little nervous about getting some of our full frame shots of the alligators catching fish for lunch 5 feet away from us.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim R – Yes, at least a little nervousness would seem to be entirely reasonable. As noted by other commenters, they can move unexpectedly quickly – leaping out of water, scampering across roads, that sort of thing. I’m happy to restrict my viewings to nature documentaries.

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