Life on the Boardwalk: Big Padre’s Last Meals of the Year

Big Padre. Photo by Javier Gonzalez.

By Javier Gonzalez
Naturalist Educator
SPI Birding and Nature Center
Special to the Parade

The fall season is here, the weather is getting cooler, and Big Padre, our captive 12.6 foot rescued nuisance gator, will likely be having his last brisket meals (no BBQ sauce) of the year this month as he goes into brumation for the winter.

Alligators are often portrayed as overly aggressive, man-eating beasts that devour everything in sight with an insatiable hunger, but that is far from the truth. Because of this, alligators unfortunately suffer the consequences from the fear produced by false narratives and sensationalized myths. 

Big Padre and all American Alligators are cold blooded reptiles, meaning they can’t regulate their temperature and completely depend on the outside temperature to stimulate their metabolism. During the hot weather months of the spring and summer, alligators’ metabolisms are running at full charge, making them the hungriest as they are able to quickly digest their food. But as the weather cools in the fall, their metabolism slows, and once temperatures drop below 70 degrees fahrenheit, their metabolism cannot digest their food efficiently so they stop eating as they enter brumation, a form of temperature-related winter dormancy in reptiles. 

Brumation allows for an 800-plus pound alligator like Big Padre to go without eating for more than 6 months! That is hard for us to fathom, since we are warm blooded, and we can’t go without eating for more than a day without getting “hangry” and sluggish. A good way to wrap our heads around it would be to think of alligators as essentially being solar powered. They absorb the sun’s heat through bony platelets called osteoderms that run down their back from the neck to the tail. Osteoderms act like solar panels and together it is if an alligator has a battery pack on its back that charges up with the sun’s heat! Alligators get most of their energy this way, the food they eat mainly goes towards muscle repair and growth. The more a gator eats and the hotter the climate, the faster they grow. Us humans on the other hand are warm blooded and we get all our energy through the food we eat. The little fire inside us burns up all the calories in our food for energy and we must consistently feed the flame.

While Big Padre falls into brumation and his food intake slows and ends for the year, us humans are starting to get ready for more calories to keep us at our consistent and warm 98.6 degrees fahrenheit body temperature through the winter in the shape of pastries, cookies, muffins, pancakes, and tamales I might be coming from my own personal experience with that list, but maybe some of you can relate?

Once Big Padre stops eating and goes into brumation, he’ll start to slow down a whole lot and he’ll be able to ride out the coldest fronts by going into his mudhole and slowing his heart rate down to 3-4 beats a minute as he falls into a torpor. As long as there are sunny days through the winter (as there always are on SPI), he’ll be just fine. The best times to see Big Padre out of the water and get a good look at his impressive size are just after cold fronts. The cold passes, the sun comes back out, the temperatures rise, and Big Padre comes out and basks on the edge of his pond all day to make up for the heat he lost during the front. Lucky for us, we won’t have to feed him until he gets hungry again when the warm spring starts to set in. 

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