JACKSON Miss. — They grow to incredible sizes, have bone-crushing jaws and are the stuff of nightmares. But are alligators really the man-eating killers some make them out to be?
Not according to Ricky Flynt, alligator program coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks.
"There are huge misperceptions about alligators," said Flynt. "It is largely caused by the drama of Hollywood and some TV shows."
Because of their size and appearance, alligators often have been portrayed as beasts lying in wait to sink their teeth into humans and dismember them with their jaws and the dreaded death roll, but Flynt said this just isn't reality.
Their diet largely consists of snakes, carp, gar, turtles and wading birds according to Flynt. Mammals such as beavers and hogs sometimes fall prey to the large lizards, but humans aren't on their preferred list.
"We have never documented a case of an alligator attack in Mississippi," said Flynt.
While there have been cases elsewhere, such as Florida, Flynt said the incidents generally occurred in areas where high densities of alligators met with high densities of humans and that increased the odds of conflict.
The lack of conflict between humans and alligators in most areas stems from the basic nature of alligators: They are shy. When they encounter people, Flynt said, "Their typical reaction is to submerge and go to a safe area or swim away."
Herpetologist Terry Vandeventer of the Living Reptile Museum agreed.
"Timid and retiring. That's how I consider them," said Vandeventer. "Alligators don't bother people.
"I've dealt with three species of cayman, one species of crocodile and one species of alligator, and I've never felt uncomfortable with any of them," said Vandeventer, who has traveled across the country and to foreign countries studying and interacting with herptiles.
Flynt said some fishermen have encounters with gators that they perceive as aggressive behavior. The most common scenario he said he hears about is in the spring when alligators are basking in the sun. He said the back of an alligator acts as a solar panel to warm the cold-blooded reptile and sometimes they are reluctant to get back into the cool water and lose the heat that has been absorbed.
In these cases, the gator will wait until the last second to get back into the water, Flynt said, which sometimes leaves it heading toward the anglers, making them think it is coming to get them.
Another time fishermen may get the feeling a gator is being aggressive is when an uneducated juvenile approaches a boat out of curiosity or comes close to inspect the movement of a cork in the water.
With wild alligators that have not been conditioned by human interaction, like feeding, the only aggression is displayed by mama gators.
"That is about the only time we see natural aggression— when a female is protecting her nest," Flynt said.
He said when the mother feels her clutch of eggs is in danger she will hiss or otherwise become vocal and sometimes charge at the offender.
"It's kind of a bluff, but if you don't leave, she will come after you," said Flynt.
According to Flynt, the upper Pearl River above the Ross Barnett Reservoir is a prime example of how alligators, if respected and left alone, are typically not a threat to humans.
Despite its high population of alligators, Flynt said boaters, skiers, campers and swimmers spend tens of thousands of hours on the water and there has never been a conflict.