The alligator is the most important species in the Everglades, known as a “keystone” species. The largest alligator ever known were about 17 feet long, but alligators in the Everglades are not known for their large size compared with records from the rivers farther north in Florida. They are both important predators and prey — eggs and baby gators providing food for raccoons, large water snakes, otters, and wading birds, while gators over 6 feet long begin to take birds and mammals, turtles and snakes.
Found throughout all of Florida, its numbers have been reduced by land development, especially the draining of wetlands, and in the past, by hunting for gator skins and meat.
Alligators are pond builders. Given a depressed wetland area during low water, alligators dig up vegetation and soil, piling the material around the edge, expanding the depression, and creating a pond called an alligator hole. It is well established that alligator holes are important to the success of the Everglades as a haven for waterbirds. The relationship between alligator holes and wading birds is tied to the seasonal cycle of rainfall. In the late dry season, during April and May in normal years, when vast areas of the Everglades become dry, gator holes act as refugia for aquatic life. Fish, frogs, turtles, water snakes, and other wildlife inhabit the ponds and use the alligator trails for access. Many become food for the resident gator, but they are also food for herons, egrets, ibis, storks, and anhingas. Furthermore, only in very severe droughts do the gator ponds become completely dry. Thus, some aquatic life normally remains to “seed” new cycles of life when water levels again flood the marshes and swamps during the wet season.