“Frozen” Alligators Aren’t Dead, They’re Waiting Out the Cold
We're all used to gators around here, but we're not very accustomed to seeing them in frozen waterways. However, with the recent record-setting cold temperatures during the winter storm, you might happen to cross paths with one. If you come across an alligator lying motionless with its snout sticking out of frozen water, don't go poking at it with a stick. It's not dead, just brumating.
Brumation is basically hibernation, but for cold-blooded creatures. When it gets too cold, a gator will seek shallow water to submerge itself in, then stick its nose up above the water while it waits on the freeze. If it's cold enough, ice will form around the gator's snout and lock the gator in place while it slows down its heart rate and digestive functions, and enters brumation to wait out the cold.
Once the temperature warms and the ice melts, the gator will wake up, make its way to the shore, and be back to enjoying basking in the regularly scheduled warm Louisiana sunshine as if nothing had happened.
The phenomenon was first closely studied in the late '70s and early '80s, but scientists have never been able to determine exactly how gators figured out how to do this. Alligators don't typically live in colder climates, so no one knows when or where they learned the behavior.
Their bodies will enter brumation naturally, sure, but exactly how the first gator worked out that if it lied still in shallow water when a freeze was coming, it would still be able to breathe when the surface froze is a mystery just chalked up to a super-specific instinct.
However, it's not a sure thing. Too long in the ice and its body temperature will drop too low to survive. It's a short term survival mechanism for a short-lived freeze, and apparently, baby gators don't know how to do it, which calls the whole instinct notion into question. In 1990, scientists observed a group of gators in freezing temperatures, and the baby gators became trapped under the ice without showing any signs of knowing the technique.