David Lauderdale

Lauderdale: Alligators will eat anything

In this file photo from 2005, an alligator rests on the banks of a lagoon behind the Hilton Head Preparatory School athletic field with a soccer ball lodged in its mouth.
In this file photo from 2005, an alligator rests on the banks of a lagoon behind the Hilton Head Preparatory School athletic field with a soccer ball lodged in its mouth. File

Warning: This may be more than you can stomach.

But if you’re one of the billions who gawked at the stupefying photograph of a Godzilla gator that was eating cattle in Florida before its untimely demise last week, this is something you should know.

Alligators will eat anything. You may want to remember that next time you back your children up to one of our Lowcountry alligators for a photo-op.

A 13-foot alligator at Jarvis Creek Park on Hilton Head Island got in trouble four years ago for taking off with an errant soccer ball during a father-son game. After it was finally wrestled ashore, trappers opened its stomach to find more than 100 objects.

They found 53 fishing lures, a half pound of lead sinkers, two baseballs, one tennis ball, two other unidentifiable balls, two turtles, one beer can, 48 rocks — and a 4-foot gator.

Gordon Wells of Tillman was a pioneer alligator trapper in these parts after the state started allowing the relocation of nuisance gators in 1988. He stayed very busy. One year, Hilton Head led the state in alligator complaints with 98. Which explains why state Sen. James Waddell of Beaufort said when the legislature made it illegal to feed alligators: “I’ll tell you, we’re up to our you-know-what in alligators.”

Wells, who was once dragged into a lagoon by a big bull alligator, learned this: “Alligators will eat anything. We discovered this one day when we cut open a gator and found a dog, two turtles, crab shells, rocks, sticks and tennis balls in his stomach.”

Royce Malphrus, who was the Sea Pines environmental officer forever, said: “I’ve never seen one attack a deer, but I saw one feeding on a full grown deer in a lagoon near the east entrance to the Forest Preserve.”

Nancy Cathcart, Hilton Head’s maven of nature advocates on an island she fell in love with in the 1950s, said: “I once saw a 6-foot youngster crossing Pope Avenue with a cottonmouth water moccasin dangling from his mouth.”

University scientists say “juvenile alligators eat crustaceans, snails, and small fish; subadults (4 to 6 feet) eat mostly fish, crustaceans, small mammals, and birds; and adults (greater than 6 feet) eat fish, mammals, turtles, birds, and other alligators. Alligators readily take domestic dogs and cats. In rural areas, larger alligators take calves, foals, goats, hogs, domestic waterfowl, and occasionally, full-grown cattle and horses.”

Alligators assume everything that moves is food. They chomp down with jaws delivering 3,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, and apparently never look back. Their stomach acid is the strongest in the animal kingdom.

Alligators, it turns out, are roving trash barrels. I read about one that ate so many tennis balls it was too buoyant to dive underwater. When a gator thought to be a world record in size was captured two years ago in Alabama, the intact carcass of a fully-grown female deer was in its stomach. Among other things. Like two squirrels, “a collection of bones from some sort of water bird such as a duck, skull plates from other deer unlucky enough to have crossed the reptile’s path, good-size rocks, teeth and an unexpected amount of greenery. A couple of the molars most likely once resided in the mouth of a small cow,” reported the Birmingham newspaper.

And we thought they only liked marshmallows. That’s what trappers use for bait. They float and will bring the gator up where they can hook it with a fishing line or lasso. And, pardon me if you are eating, but the backup bait for Gordon Wells was hog lungs. They float.

“The young begin on insects and small aquatics, graduating to muskrats, pigs and waterfowl of the marshes and rivers,” wrote our former nature columnist, Tom Smith. He shared, by the way, that a researcher discovered that the infamous bellow of the lusty bull gator is the sound of a French horn (B flat, two octaves below middle G, 57 vibrations per second).

Which is not to say that alligators are cultured. Gagging diners did not think so when an elegant restaurant on Hilton Head added ducks and geese to its windowside lagoon. Not only did gators eat at least four baby ducks, they reportedly killed an otter that had taken up residence there.

So remember: Alligators are not cute. Alligators are not entertainment for small children. Alligators will chomp on anything.

But one Hilton Head islander’s hungry-gator story had a happy ending. He was playing golf at Spanish Wells. His tee shot flew to the left of the fairway, bounced off a tree, ran down a lagoon bank and rolled into the open mouth of a 7-foot alligator.

He scored it a hole-in-one.

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale

In one gator’s stomach


Fishing lures




4-foot alligator




Tennis ball




Beer can