Both alligators and sharks are distinguished for their predatory ranks in the animal kingdom, but when it comes down to who’s eating whom when they come together in an ecosystem, things can get a bit tricky.
Image Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service J.N.
A new study published in the journal Southeastern Naturalist by researchers from Kansas State University highlights some of the first scientifically-documented interactions between the two different predatory species.
Specifically, a stomach content analysis of 500 live alligators revealed that they were munching on juvenile sharks and stingrays along the Atlantic Ocean coastline – spanning from Georgia, all the way around Florida’s peninsula and to the panhandle. (No animals were harmed in this research)
"In the article, we documented alligators consuming four new species of sharks and one species of stingray," explained lead author James Nifong from the Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Kansas State University.
"Before this, there have only been a few observations from an island off the Georgia coast, but the new findings document the occurrence of these interactions from the Atlantic coast of Georgia around the Florida peninsula to the Gulf Coast and Florida panhandle."
While unquestionably-similar interactions have been recognized off the Georgia coastline in the past, this was the first in-depth study of its kind to encompass such a vast region. More importantly, it teaches us a lot about the two species and how they influence one another in the wild.
As it turns out, it’s more common for alligators and sharks to share the same water than initially thought. Whether freshwater alligators inadvertently swim into the briny ocean waters, or saltwater sharks find their way into freshwater channels, the two species intermingle a lot.
Alligators don’t typically favor saltwater habitats, but they’re resourceful and capable of surviving there for extended periods. They make do with the freshwater residing at the top of the ocean from rainfall.
"Alligators seek out fresh water in high-salinity environments. 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," Nifong continued.
"The findings bring into question how important sharks and rays are to the alligator diet as well as the fatality of some the juvenile sharks when we think about population management of endangered species."
Although alligators' diets typically consist of crustaceans, fish, and snails, they’re also opportunistic feeders; this means they will eat anything that looks appetizing and strays into their territory. As we can see in this case, sharks and stingrays aren’t excluded from that.
Interestingly, larger sharks sometimes devour alligators when they drift too far from their freshwater habitats, and that’s where things get tricky. It appears that this dietary preference goes both ways, depending on the size of the predator and prey at any given time.
As the researchers note, there’s a lot we can learn from this study, such as the two creatures’ dietary preferences and how one’s existence impacts the other. Since many sharks are labeled as endangered species, understanding these notions can support conservation efforts, among other things.
Source: Kansas State University