Alligators will eat sharks when given the chance

Who wins the ultimate toothy predator showdown? A study on alligator diets finds the opportunistic reptiles will snack on sharks when it's convenient.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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An American alligator bites into a nurse shark at the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Forget sharknadoes. Gatornadoes may be scarier. 

The American alligator is known to snack on snails, fish, birds and mammals that might wander too close. A study on alligator diets finds the carnivorous reptiles also have a sweet tooth for sharks.

This might sound like some weird hybrid between "Jaws" and "Lake Placid," but the research sheds new light on the eating habits of alligators living in coastal areas of the US, including Georgia and Florida. 

Kansas State University postdoctoral researcher James Nifong led the study along with Kennedy Space Center wildlife biologist Russell Lowers. Nifong says there had been a few isolated observations of gators eating sharks, but his research shows evidence of more widespread interactions between the two critters.  

While alligators are freshwater animals and sharks live in saltwater, their territories sometimes overlap. "Many sharks and rays can swim into freshwater where opportunistic alligators can't pass up a good meal," notes a Kansas State University's release on the study from Monday. Nifong says alligators can also sip fresh rainwater off the surface of salt water in order to spend time in a marine environment.

The alligators aren't exactly tucking into Great Whites. The research team found evidence the reptiles eat several different kinds of small sharks and one type of stingray.

The Kansas State release includes a fascinating photograph from the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida showing an alligator with its teeth in a nurse shark that's about the size of its head.

Nifong's pumped the stomachs of "more than 500 live and alert alligators" to find out what they had been eating. The researchers also used GPS transmitters to track some of the alligators and found they moved between their known freshwater areas and into estuaries that contain both fresh and salt water. Some species of sharks use these estuaries as nurseries for their young.

"The findings bring into question how important sharks and rays are to the alligator diet as well as the fatality of some the juvenile sharks when we think about population management of endangered species," says Nifong

Nifong and Russell published their findings in the journal Southeastern Naturalist with the title "Reciprocal Intraguild Predation between Alligator mississippiensis (American Alligator) and Elasmobranchii in the Southeastern United States."

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