A few weeks ago I wrote about the American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis. Today I bring you the only other living member of the Alligtor genus.
The Chinese Alligator (Alligator sinensis) is a small crocodilian that could once be found in much of China. But over the years its range has dwindled with the development of wetlands into farming lands for rice and other crops. Today it can only be found in a small reserve in Anhui province, which includes a section of the lower Yangtze River. This reserve, as well as a very few areas where more wild Chinese Alligators may live, comprises less than 10% of its historical range.
While similar in appearance to their American cousins, adult Chinese Alligators only grow up to about 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length, with an average weight of 80 pounds (36 kg). Extremely large males have been measured at 7 feet (2.1 meters), but they are very rare. Centuries-old historical records report specimens of up to 10 feet (3 meters) long, but there is no way to verify this and it may well have been exaggerated. The Chinese Alligator is one of the few crocodilian species that is fully armored, back and belly. Its snout is also slightly upturned, and it has bony eye ridges.
The Chinese Alligator prefers warm marshes and swamps to live in, but when it lives in temperate regions it will spend the winter hibernating in underground burrows. These burrows form complex networks and the animals do not become active until the first warm days of May. They are nocturnal, and feed mostly on molluscs, like snails and mussels, and small fish. They will also feed on small mammals when they have the opportunity - it's believed that rat poisoning used to control pests has also contributed to the Chinese Alligator's dwindling population.
During the spring, adult Chinese Alligators will gather together to engage in chorus bellowing, which can last for 10 minutes at a time. It's likely that these gatherings, which include both male and female adults, are a means of gathering mating groups together. Male Chinese Alligators will only mate with one female per season, and when the female is ready to lay her eggs she will construct a nest of vegetation. The eggs are the smallest of any crocodilian, smaller even than those of species who are even smaller than Chinese Alligators. The female will lay 10 to 50 eggs per clutch.
Chinese Alligators are considered to be a critically endangered species by the IUCN. There are captive breeding programs in Anhui and other areas that are working to re-introduce Chinese Alligators into those regions. But the problem remains that the habitat available for wild populations continues to shrink, as more and more of it is converted to farmland. They are also hunted because it is believed that their meat and organs contain curative properties.