An alligator's diet typically consists of fish, snails, crustaceans and the occasional unfortunate pet or person. But scientists just revealed that alligators may also tackle larger, scarier prey.
A study published in the scientific journal Southeastern Naturalist in September documented the stomach contents of more than 500 alligators examined over the course of about 10 years. The study was conducted by Kansas State University's James Nifong and his colleagues.
The alligators' stomachs were pumped using a hose, a pipe and a Heimlich-type maneuver, according to The Washington Post.
"It is meticulous, going through it, sorting through it," Nifong said. "A lot of these things we're identifying, they're very small or we really only have small fragments of things."
Nifong also said he and his colleagues became quite good at catching the gators, remarking that "anything less than four feet long we just hand-grab and bring it on the boat."
Nifong's hard work paid off, as the researchers found three new species of shark and one new species of stingray. Some of the sharks were estimated to be as large as 4 feet long, while the stingrays are estimated to range from 2 to 3 feet across.
"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," Nifong said, according to The Guardian.
Although evidence of alligator-shark interactions date back as far as the 1870s, Nifong claims his study is the first to provide insight into the competition between the two species.
"The frequency of one predator eating the other is really about size dynamic," Nifong said. "If a small shark swims by an alligator and the alligator feels like it can take the shark down, it will, but we also reviewed some old stories about larger sharks eating smaller alligators."
Beyond striking fear into the hearts of people, the interaction between alligators and sharks is somewhat of an anomaly considering that sharks live in salt water and alligators in fresh water. Luckily, GPS data from Nifong was able to explain this.
Nifong described alligators as "opportunistic predators" that are able to swim up estuaries and out towards the ocean, where they can find sharks.
One alligator stayed in the ocean for 32 days. This is an exceptionally long time for alligators to not go back to fresh water and "rehydrate," though Nifong said heavy rain might enable them to stay in salt water for longer.
“In the happenstance that it rains out there, they can actually drink the fresh water off the top of the salt water," the researcher explained.
Nifong said it's possible that shark and alligator interactions have increased, but more research is needed to be able to say for sure -- and to figure out why.
"Both populations have suffered declines, and you've got a lot of coastal development that have decreased their access to estuarine habitats," he said. "Historically, alligators were considered just a freshwater species. We found that not only do they habitually use marine habitats, there are very important linkages between those two systems. ... We need to account for those interactions when we're planning for those conservation efforts."
That research will not be coming from Nifong any time soon, as he accepted a one-year project as a postdoctoral researcher for the Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Kansas State University
"I'm studying native fish in Kansas streams, looking at what's affecting their populations," he laughed. "It has nothing to do with alligators."