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American Alligator

Alligator mississippiensis

Range/Geographical Distribution: The southeast United States from North Carolina to Texas.

Habitat: Marshes, swamps, rivers, ponds, and lakes; also sometimes found in ditches, neighborhoods, drainage canals, golf course ponds, and swimming pools. 

Description: A large aquatic reptile with short, thick legs, a powerful tail, and a rounded body.  Adults are dark gray and young have distinct yellow bands on the body and tail. 

Size: Adults can reach 19’ in length and can weigh over 800 lbs. Hatchlings are about nine inches long when they are born.

Food: Will eat anything they can catch including fish, turtles, insects, crustaceans, small mammals, and snails.

Breeding: Lay 35-45 eggs in a nest of mounded vegetation, which the female guards.

Predators: Adults have no natural predators but young are often eaten by raccoons, birds, snakes, otters and other alligators.

Conservation Status: Alligators were hunted almost to extinction in the 1950s and 1960s.  In 1967 the alligator was listed as endangered but by 1987 it was considered fully recovered and removed from the endangered species list.  The alligator is currently classified as least concern on the IUCN Red List but remains listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and as “Threatened due to similarity of appearance” under the Endangered Species Act.  These listings help ensure that related, “look-alike”, endangered species (i.e. crocodiles and caimans) products are not passed off as coming from American alligators.

Interesting Facts: The American alligator is considered a keystone species in its habitat.  During periods of drought these animals dig holes, called gator holes, that concentrate water and help other animals survive.  Alligators also dig dens beneath banks that are used for shelter during droughts and throughout the winter. 

On the Coast: There are currently about 200,000 alligators in Georgia.  Between 1980 and 2001 there were only eight reported alligator attacks on people in Georgia and none of them were fatal.  Alligators are often seen swimming in coastal Georgia waterways or pulled out “basking” on beaches and shores.

Carolina Diamondback Terrapin

Malaclemys terrapin centrata

Range/Geographical Distribution: Diamondback terrapins can be found along the coast from Cape Cod to Texas.  The subspecies Carolina diamondback terrapin lives along the coast from North Carolina to Georgia.

Habitat: Brackish water including marshes, tidal flats, estuaries, and coves. 

Description: Carapace coloration is extremely variable and ranges from light gray with boldly patterned concentric rings to a uniform black or dark brown.  Plastron ranges from light yellow to orange to green/gray.  Hatchlings tend to be more boldly marked than adults. 

Size: Females can reach nine inches in length whereas males rarely grow larger than five inches.   Hatchlings are about one inch long at hatching.

Food: Eat invertebrates including snails, bivalves, and crabs.  Also may consume plants and algae.

Breeding: Mating occurs in April and May.  Females lay five to 12 eggs in sandy areas above the high tide line and may lay several clutches each year.  The eggs hatch in 60-70 days.

Predators: Alligators, birds of prey, skunks, raccoons, foxes, herons, and large fish.

Conservation Status: Listed as near threatened on the IUCN Red List.  Diamondback terrapin populations were severely diminished due to commercial harvesting for soups and stews in the early 1900’s.  During prohibition these soups lost their popularity and terrapin populations began to recover.  Currently diamondback terrapins are listed as an unusual species in Georgia and have no federal protection.  Habitat loss, road strikes, and drowning in crab pots threaten these turtles.

Interesting Facts: During colder months terrapins hibernate in the mud of creek bottoms or banks.  They are thought to be the only turtles in the world to live exclusively in brackish water (a mix of fresh and salt water). 

On the Coast: Diamondback terrapins are active along the Georgia coast from March to November.  They can be seen crossing causeways during nesting season and are often struck by cars.

Corn Snake

Elaphe guttata guttata

Range/Geographical Distribution: Virginia south to Florida and west to the Mississippi River.

Habitat: Pine barrens, woodlands, and rocky hillsides. 

Description: A red/orange/brown snake with a boldly checkered black and whitish belly.

Size: Can reach 48 inches in length and weigh 32 oz.

Food: Constrictors that eat mice, rats, birds, lizards, and frogs.

Breeding: Reach sexual maturity at about a year and a half. Females lay up to 30 eggs from May to July in burrows, logs, or stumps.  Hatchlings emerge about two months later.

Predators: Larger snakes and birds of prey.

Conservation Status: Abundant, listed as least concern on the IUCN Red List.

Interesting Facts: The corn snake is sometimes confused with the venomous southern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contorix).   Corn snakes have a narrower head, lighter coloration, and more square-shaped spots than southern copperheads.  Also a popular pet snake and breeders have developed many different color morphs. 

On the Coast: Corn snakes can be found in trees and borrows along the Georgia coast.  They help keep nuisance rodent populations low and help stop the spread of rodent diseases.

Eastern Box Turtle

Terrapene carolina carolina

Range/Geographical Distribution: From Massachusetts to Georgia and west to Michigan, Illinois, and Tennessee.

Habitat: Open forests, shrubby grasslands, meadows, and thickets. 

Description: A small land turtle with a large variation in shell color and pattern.  The domed carapace and hinged plastron may be yellow or orange or olive on a black or brown background.  Males usually have red eyes whereas females’ eyes are brown.  Hatchlings are plain brown with a yellow spot on each large scute. 

Size: Can reach a carapace length of six inches.

Food: Earthworms, snails, grubs, beetles, caterpillars, grasses, fallen fruit, mushrooms, flowers, and carrion.

Breeding: Females lay one to ten eggs in a nest excavated in sandy soil from May to July.  Hatchlings emerge after 70-80 days of incubation.

Predators: Raccoons, foxes, possums, crows, boar, dogs, and introduced fire ants.

Conservation Status: Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Threatened by habitat loss, pollution, and vehicular strikes.  Also still collected for personal pets although large-scale removal for the pet trade has stopped.

Interesting Facts: The eastern box turtle is one of six subspecies of the common box turtle.  Although predominately terrestrial, box turtles often “soak” themselves in mud or shallow water.  Female box turtles can store sperm for up to four years and therefore do not mate yearly. 

On the Coast: Eastern box turtles are found in maritime forests along the Georgia coast.  They may also be seen crossing roads during nesting season.

Gopher Tortoise

Gopherus polyphemus

Range/Geographical Distribution: The coastal plain from South Carolina to Louisiana.

Habitat: Sandy areas with ample sunlight and vegetation.  Historically found in the longleaf pine and wiregrass community but since this habitat is now rare, they can be found along roadsides and old fields. 

Description: A large terrestrial turtle with a brown or gray domed carapace.  The plastron is yellowish and the skin is dark gray.  The front limbs are flattened and shovel-like and the hind limbs are elephantine. 

Size: Adults can reach a carapace length of 15 inches.

Food: Grasses, legumes, and fruits.

Breeding: Mating occurs from April to June and nesting usually ends in July.  Females lay an average of six white eggs in a nest in a burrow mound.  After 97-106 days of incubation the hatchlings emerge.

Predators: Eggs and hatchlings are consumed by various mammals, birds, and snakes.

Conservation Status: Listed as Threatened in Georgia.  Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List

Interesting Facts: Gopher tortoises dig long, un-branched burrows, sometimes deeper than 30 feet, in sandy soil.  These burrows serve as a retreat from summer heat, protection from fire, and a place to hibernate.  One tortoise may build several burrows and multiple tortoises may occupy one burrow for short periods.  Many other species also use these burrows including the indigo snake.  Gopher tortoises help disperse soil nutrients through burrow excavation and they spread plant seeds through consumption and subsequent defecation.  All of these characteristics make the tortoise a key-stone species in the coastal plain. 

On the Coast: The gopher tortoise is the state reptile of Georgia.  Their burrows can be distinguished from other animals by the distinct half-moon shaped opening and the fan of excavated sand near the opening.  Tortoise burrows are also usually in sunny areas and may have tracks or scat around them.

Green Anole

Anolis carolinensis

Range/Geographical Distribution: North Carolina south to Florida and west to Texas.

Habitat: Forests, scrubland, swamps, fields, residential areas. Very common lizard found on shrubs, vines, old buildings, and trees. 

Description: A small green lizard with a pink throat fan.  Color changing ability allows the lizard to change its body color from green to green/brown to brown. 

Size: Can grow to a length of eight inches including the tail.  Hatchlings are just over two inches at birth.

Food: Insects, spiders, and other small arthropods.

Breeding: Breed from April to August and females can lay six to nine eggs per year.  The eggs are placed in moist soil, leaf litter, rotting wood, or under debris and hatch after five to seven weeks of incubation.  Anoles reach sexual maturity between eight and nine months.  Females can store sperm for several months.

Predators: Birds, mammals, and snakes.

Conservation Status: Abundant, listed as least concern on the IUCN Red List.  No known major threats.

Interesting Facts: This lizard is sometimes misnamed as a chameleon and is often sold in pet stores.  Anoles sleep on the underside of leaves during the night. 

On the Coast: Anoles are common along the coast of Georgia and help keep insect populations in check.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle

Caretta caretta

Range/Geographical Distribution: Found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans and in the Mediterranean Sea.

Habitat: Hatchlings are thought to spend the first ten years of their life in the open ocean drifting with the currents and associating with mats of sargassum seaweed.  Juveniles can be found in nearshore waters like bays and estuaries.  Adults are found inshore and in the open ocean and some individuals migrate thousands of miles. 

Description: Adults have a reddish-brown heart-shaped carapace and a pale yellow plastron.  Hatchlings are a brownish gray.  The head is relatively large with powerful jaws. 

Size: Adult loggerheads can reach 43 inches in length and weigh over 300 lbs.  Hatchlings are two inches in length and weigh a mere 20 grams at birth.

Food: Many types of organisms including sponges, whelks, crabs, and other invertebrates.

Breeding: Mating occurs between March and June.  Nesting females lay over 100 eggs in buried nests on beaches above the high tide line from May to October. After about two months of incubation the hatchlings emerge and scramble back to the ocean.

Predators: Adults have few predators but eggs and hatchlings may be consumed by crabs, fish, birds, raccoons, and hogs.

Conservation Status: Listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List.  Also listed as endangered in Georgia and threatened federally.  Faces threats including direct harvest, entanglement in fishing gear, and loss of nesting habitat.

Interesting Facts: As a loggerhead hatchling grows its weight increases by more than 6,000 times.  Traction scales on the bottom of these turtles’ flippers help them to walk along the ocean floor.  Loggerhead sea turtles do not reach sexual maturity until they are about 30 years old. 

On the Coast: Loggerhead sea turtles nest on all of Georgia’s beaches.  Conservation efforts along the coast include dawn patrols during nesting season and nest “sitting” during hatching to help increase the survival of young turtles.