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Alligators in the Everglades

The swampy nature preserve is home to many of southern Florida’s infamous reptile natives.

Copyright © 2012 Smithsonian Institution. Reprinted with permission from Smithsonian Magazine. All rights reserved. Reproduction in any medium is strictly prohibited without permission from Smithsonian Institution. Such permission may be requested from Smithsonian Magazine.

It takes a certain amount of courage to visit the Florida Everglades. Other national parks have their dangers: hot acid pools in Yellowstone, rock slides in Yosemite, grizzlies in Glacier. But the Everglades may be the least human-friendly habitat to be one of [America’s] great destinations.

The Everglades is a vast, slow-flowing river that sweeps from central Florida to the Keys; aside from a few “hammocks” (islands) and seasonal dry spots, most of the territory is covered in grasses, mangrove swamps and shallow, murky water. It’s thick with snakes, including invasive Burmese pythons; it’s hot and muggy much of the year; and swarms of mosquitoes will pick you up and carry you away.

Perhaps the weirdest and most intimidating creature in this spectacularly otherworldly place is the American alligator. These basking, groaning, teeth-gnashing reptiles grow up to [4.5 meters] long. They look like something from the Mesozoic because they are—they evolved more than 200 million years ago and haven’t changed much since.

Visitors to the Everglades will see plenty of alligators, from beady-eyed behemoths lounging by the side of the road to tangles of newly hatched juveniles. They add to the sense that this place is truly wild, and well worth the challenge. The wading birds are spectacular as well—white pelicans with yard-wide wingspans, wood storks that were once almost extinct, great blue herons that flap leisurely through the air like pterodactyls. Boardwalk trails wind through otherwise impenetrable swamp, jungle and wetland habitat. Once you reach the southern end of the Everglades, where the slowly oozing fresh water mixes with the Gulf of Mexico to become brackish, alligators become scarcer. But keep an eye out for a more rare but equally intimidating reptile: the American crocodile.


Laura Helmuth is a senior editor with Smithsonian magazine.