Alligators in Virginia

the range of alligators in North Carolina includes Merchants Millpond State Park, just south of the Virginia border
the range of alligators in North Carolina includes Merchants Millpond State Park, just south of the Virginia border
Source: North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, North Carolina Alligator Management Plan (Figure 2)

Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) are in Merchants Millpond State Park, North Carolina, just south of Dismal Swamp and at Kitty Hawk. None live naturally in Virginia - yet.

There is one adult alligator buried in the Pittsylvania County landfill. In 2006, a trucker ran over the unfortunate reptile in Florida and brought the carcass to Virginia. Wildlife officials confiscated it because alligators were a protected species. The alligator species is not listed as a "threatened or endangered" species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service now, but they resemble endangered crocodiles.

The trucker's plans to make a pair of boots were blocked. The dead alligator was seized and ultimately buried in the Virginia landfill.1

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission authorized a hunting season in 2018, since the population had increased sufficiently within that state. The first legal hunt that year led to the harvest of one 20-year old alligator.2

A warming climate may result in a natural range expansion northward across the border into Dismal Swamp. The adults in Merchants Millpond State Park are living at the edge of their range. Some may decide one day to cross the state border, but a more likely migration route is up the Pasquotank River. Whenever alligators arrive, they are unlikely to breed within Virginia because of the cold temperatures.

However, if the climate warms significantly, alligators could adapt. Crocodilians such as alligators are remarkably capable of withstanding climate change, perhaps because they incubate their eggs at the same temperature wherever they nest. In contrast, turtles incubate at different temperatures at different latitudes. As the climate warms or cools, crocodilians still reproduce successfully while other species suffer.

Crocodilians survived the changing conditions that led to extinction of the dinosaurs, and have lasted nearly 100 million years on earth. Before the asteroid impact 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs (except birds), a type of crocodilian lived in the swamps which ultimately became the Midlothian coal fields south of Richmond.3

As the climate warms, habitats change. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are now breeding in the Chesapeake Bay, and alligators are living further north. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist commented in 2014:4

Used to be about 60 miles south of us. Now they're probably within 15-20 miles of our southern border.

the range of alligators could expand north into Virginia, if climate change results in warmer winter temperatures
the range of alligators could expand north into Virginia, if climate change results in warmer winter temperatures
Source: National Park Service, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve

A state permit is required to keep a pet alligator or cayman in Virginia. The permit form notes:5

It shall be unlawful for the owner or keeper of any exotic reptile or type of reptile not native to the Commonwealth of Virginia, including but not limited to the American alligator, to keep the reptile in any manner that will permit its escape or to knowingly permit the reptile to run at large under authority of Section 29.1-569 of the Code of Virginia.

In 2012, Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries seized an alligator in Virginia Beach. They took it to the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News, which named him Stallone because its smile resembled that of actor Sylvester Stallone. The alligator lived in the cypress swamp exhibit for six years. In 2018, it was sent to Alligator Adventure in North Myrtle Beach. That site serves as a "retirement home" for captured alligators.6

The Wildlife Center near Staunton has reported admitting a seized alligator as a "patient." It was transferred to the Luray Zoo and Reptile Center. The small privately-owned rescue zoo is not accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, but has the required permits by state and Federal officials to keep exotic animals. It accepts wildlife that can not be released into the wild, simplifying the lives of local officials who have seized alligators but have no place to keep them.7

Alligator sightings occur every few years, in all regions of Virginia. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has concluded that all such sightings are from escaped or released pets. For example, in 2005 a four-foot-long alligator was killed in the City of Chesapeake. That same year, a fisherman in Falling Creek Reservoir in Chesterfield County used an oar to club to death a three-foot long alligator which he hooked.8

In 2018, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries reacted to a report that a 2-foot long alligator had been seen in Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The state agency responded in a post on Facebook that it was probably a pet which someone had released. Later in 2018, a pet four-foot long alligator got loose in Big Moccasin Creek near Gate City. State officials killed it, for public safety.9

In 2021, an alligator was spotted in the Chesapeake Bay at Calvert County. A local man set up a trap, using chicken on a hook, and the next morning killed the alligator using a crossbow. It was over seven feet long. That size suggested the alligator had been brought to Maryland and released, and was not locally-grown. A five-foot long dead alligator had been found in the bay in 2015, and was judged to have been an exotic pet released into the wild.10

Alligators which escape can survive in the wild. In 2007 Stafford County police responded to a report that there an alligator was an alligator underneath a car, in a subdivision. The local animal control officer trapped it. The condition of the skin indicated that the alligator had spent a year in the wild. It may have been a farm-raised alligator or a pet, but it had been on the loose in Aquia Creek. 25 years earlier, another escaped/released alligator had been shot in Accokeek Creek.11

To survive freezing water at the northern end of their range, North Carolina's alligators stick their noses out of the water before the ice completely seals the surface. In 2019, 18 alligators at Shallotte River Swamp Park & Outdoor Adventure Center entered what the local manager called "a state of brumation, like hibernating."12

The official portrait of Gov. Terry McAuliffe includes a small alligator. The picture emphasizes him signing paperwork to restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences. The alligator is a humorous reference to a fund-raising stunt when McAuliffe was a Democratic Party official raising money for President Bill Clinton.13

Threatened, Endangered, Sensitive, and Other "Species of Concern" in Virginia

in his official portrait, Gov. Terry McAuliffe included an alligator
in his official portrait, Gov. Terry McAuliffe included an alligator
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Links

at some point, swimmers in Virginia will need to watch out for alligators
at some point, swimmers in Virginia will need to watch out for alligators
Source: Flickr

References

1. "Man avoids charges for nabbing roadkill alligator," Sarasota (Florida) Herald Tribune, August 12, 2006, http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20060812/BREAKING20/60812014 (last checked March 15, 2016)
2. "Alligator population growing in North Carolina; new hunting season coming?," The Virginian-Pilot, October 10, 2017, https://pilotonline.com/news/local/environment/alligator-population-growing-in-north-carolina-new-hunting-season-coming/article_a00dc828-5836-5cda-8077-e86276252d3e.html; "'Really big alligator' spotted in Kitty Hawk neighborhood," The Virginian-Pilot, May 7, 2018, https://pilotonline.com/news/local/article_6983ba94-51f6-11e8-a478-cbb7d06a9976.html; "NC's First Sanctioned Alligator Hunt Ends With One Kill," WUNC, October 3, 2018, http://www.wunc.org/post/ncs-first-sanctioned-alligator-hunt-ends-one-kill (last checked January 26, 2019)
3. "Riverkeeper Report: Are alligators coming to Virginia?," Tidewater Report, October 1, 2011, https://www.tidewaternews.com/2011/10/01/riverkeeper-report-are-alligators-coming-to-virginia/; "Crocodilians, Which Have Walked Earth For Nearly 100 Million Years, Are Survivors Of Mass Extinctions And May Be Able To Adapt To Climate Change," Newsweek, March 12, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/crocodilians-earth-100-million-years-survivors-mass-extinctions-climate-change-1492027; Rebecca J. Lakin, Paul M. Barrett, Colin Stevenson, Robert J. Thomas, Matthew A. Wills, "First evidence for a latitudinal body mass effect in extant Crocodylia and the relationships of their reproductive characters," Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, January 21, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1093/biolinnean/blz208; "Exploring Nature at Mid-Lothian Mines Park," Mid-Lothian Mines Park, https://www.midlomines.org/geology.html (last checked March 13, 2020)
4. "Alligators in Virginia?," WVTF, May 19, 2014, https://www.wvtf.org/post/alligators-virginia; "Dolphins 'all over the place' in Chesapeake Bay," Bay Journal, June 29, 2021, https://www.bayjournal.com/news/wildlife_habitat/dolphins-all-over-the-place-in-chesapeake-bay/article_cadf6018-d7f4-11eb-a325-6bda03246968.html (last checked July 28, 2021)
5. "Herp Highlight #1: American Alligator," Virginia Living Museum, https://thevlm.org/herp-highlight-1-american-alligator/; "Application To Import And Possess Certain Non-Native (Exotic) Wildlife In Virginia," Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/forms-download/PERM/PERM-025.pdf (last checked January 26, 2019)
6. "'Stallone' the alligator retiring to Myrtle Beach after 6 years in a Virginia museum," Charlotte Observer, November 8, 2018, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/state/south-carolina/article221359360.html (last checked January 26, 2019)
7. "American Alligator #10-0111," Wildlife Center, https://www.wildlifecenter.org/critter-corner/archive-patient/american-alligator-10-0111; "About the Zoo," Luray Zoo and Reptile Center, https://www.lurayzoo.com/about-us/the-zoo.html; "This Va. roadside zoo is unaccredited. Its owner says that's what makes it humane," Washington Post, June 1, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/this-va-roadside-zoo-is-unaccredited-its-owner-says-thats-what-makes-it-humane/2017/05/30/40e05140-2f58-11e7-9dec-764dc781686f_story.html (last checked January 26, 2019)
8. "Alligators relocate in area waters," Washington Times, May 24, 2005, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2005/may/24/20050524-120815-9035r/; "Fisherman in Virginia charged with killing alligator," Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 22, 2005, posted at Wikinews, https://en.wikinews.org/wiki/Fisherman_in_Virginia_charged_with_killing_alligator (last checked January 26, 2019)
9. "Alligators in Virginia?" Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, May 21, 2018 Facebook post, https://www.facebook.com/VDGIF/posts/alligators-in-virginiarecently-there-have-been-some-photos-circulating-around-so/10155252368651498/; "Wildlife officials kill alligator found in Southwest Virginia," WDBJ, July 25, 2018, https://www.wdbj7.com/content/news/Wildlife-officials-kill-alligator-found-in-Southwest-Virginia-489117121.html; "Alligator shot in Scott County creek," Kingsport Times, July 20, 2018, http://www.timesnews.net/Local/2018/07/20/Alligator-shot-in-Scott-County-creek (last checked January 26, 2019)
10. "Calvert Man Recounts How He Caught 7.5-Foot Alligator From Chesapeake Bay," Chesapeake Bay Magazine, June 22, 2021, https://chesapeakebaymagazine.com/calvert-co-man-claims-7-5-foot-alligator-caught-from-chesapeake-bay/ (last checked June 23, 2021)
11. "It's no croc: Gator found," Free Lace-Star, May 10, 2007, https://www.fredericksburg.com/local/it-s-no-croc-gator-found/article_a5a1f689-59b3-519d-b97e-5bf7b8ffa622.html (last checked January 26, 2019)
12. "Alligators in North Carolina freeze themselves in swamp with noses out of the water," The Virginian-Pilot, January 25, 2019, https://pilotonline.com/news/nation-world/north-carolina/article_dd100afc-20aa-11e9-b7b3-732ecfa4ab70.html (last checked January 26, 2019)
13. "Gov. Terry McAuliffe's official portrait unveiled," WTVR, January 11, 2018, https://wtvr.com/2018/01/11/gov-terry-mcauliffes-official-portrait-unveiled/ (last checked January 26, 2019)


Habitats and Species of Virginia
Virginia Places