The Tender Side of Alligators

Female alligators stand by their man? Who knew?

ByABC News
October 13, 2009, 3:00 PM

Oct. 14, 2009— -- You probably thought an alligator had a face only a mother could love, but guess what? Scientists have made the surprising discovery that some female alligators mate repeatedly with the same male, so there seems to be a little pair-bonding going on in the bizarre world of crocodilians.

It's not exactly a storybook romance, since most gators play the field, whether male or female, but researchers found that in one wildlife refuge, up to 70 percent of the females stood by their man, year after year.

It appears the gators are acting like some famous species of birds that mate for life. Sort of. Some of the time.

A 10-year study published in the current issue of the journal Molecular Ecology reveals what the scientists call the first evidence of "partial marital fidelity in any crocodilian species," based on observations in Louisiana's sprawling haven for gators, the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, that extends for 26 miles along the Gulf Coast.

The refuge is home to so many alligators that researchers have found one nest per 10 acres in the 76,000-acre reserve, which is a lot for alligators. (The refuge encompassed 86,000 acres when the Rockefeller Foundation donated it to the state, but about 10,000 acres have been lost to coastal erosion.)

Years ago, scientists found that it wasn't too difficult, although a bit tricky, to recapture female gators over a long period of time. That opened the door to researching the mating habits of alligators -- which have been around since dinosaurs ruled Earth.

The scientists say they were astonished to find that in many cases, females returned to an earlier love.

"I don't think any of us expected that the same pair of alligators that bred together in 1997 would still be breeding together in 2005, and may still be producing nests together to this day," Stacey Lance of the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory said in releasing the study.

The researchers found that one male was responsible for all the offspring produced by one female in 2000, 2002, and 2004. That's surprising, they say, because, unlike nearly all reptiles, female crocodilians exhibit extensive parental care, partly to keep their offspring from getting eaten by adult gators. But males are thought to remain pretty much out of the loop.