HILTON HEAD ISLAND - Alligators, it turns out, are not that different from humans when it comes to bundling up during cold weather.
While cold winter days might be the perfect time for people to stay inside with a warm blanket and a nice cup of cocoa, alligators bundle up in their own way, retreating to burrows and dens under roads or in the banks of ponds and lakes, many of them under water, according to Andrew Grosse, alligator program biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
"The ground around them insulates them, and they have a little air pocket where they can come up and breathe," Grosse said. "It's just a little den that they sit in for the harshest part of the winter."
Not all alligators winter in the same way, though, and some have developed some truly odd habits.
"I've seen alligators that have been in ponds that have frozen over," Grosse said. "Some of them have adapted to where they'll stick their noses out of the water and let it freeze around them, and they'll stay there until the ice melts."
As winter approaches in the Lowcountry, temperatures can become erratic, jumping from warm to cold and back again in the space of a few days. So, how do alligators know when winter is actually setting in?
"One of the main cues that influences most wildlife is when we start getting shorter days and the sun is out less. That is more of a constant thing than the temperatures. That is what triggers them to initially prepare for the winter," Grosse said. "Both temperature and daylight influence seasonal behavior, but daylight is more consistent."
Most alligator nuisance calls that the Department of Natural Resources receives come during the fall and spring, and it all has to do with their need for warmth.
In fall, gators are trying to soak up as much warmth as possible before the long chill ahead, and in spring they are trying to warm back up. That means there are more of them on the banks of ponds and lakes, and they are more difficult to scare off.
"People can approach them at these times of year, and they won't run away because they really don't want to go back into the water," Grosse said.
Oddly, eating is not a priority for alligators as winter approaches, according to Grosse.
"When it starts to feel more like fall, with temperatures kind of where they are now, maybe a little bit warmer, they slow down with their feeding or stop altogether and kind of prepare for winter," Grosse said. "Their primary goals become warming up when they can, finding a place to spend the winter and maybe feeding a little bit, but they start to lose interest at that point."
Alligators are cold-blooded, which means when it gets cold, they slow down. Their winters are devoted to staying as warm as possible.
As temperatures cool, alligators' metabolism slows, and they begin a process known as brumation. This is different from hibernation, which occurs in mammals and involves a deep, seasonally induced sleep.
"It's really just, because the habitat around them is kind of slowing down, their metabolic rate and everything in their body slows down so much that they're not active," said Grosse. "They're just surviving at that point. They're not like bears that are in a kind of deep slumber. It's more just a reduced state of activity."
Brumation means that alligators are very much awake during winter. They're just not doing anything. It only takes a few warm days, though, to shake them from their self-imposed stupor, Grosse said.
When temperatures get up into the 60s or 70s and stay there for a few days, something not that uncommon during Lowcountry winters, gators will emerge from their burrows and dens to bask in the sun and gather warmth.
If you see them, there is really no need to be afraid, according to Grosse, as they tend to be lethargic and less aggressive.
"Obviously, you always want to keep your distance from them, but there's not as much of a threat."
As winter comes to a close, gators will leave their burrows and dens. As they do, they have three things on their mind, according to Grosse: Getting warm, finding food and preparing for mating season.
Even though they are hungry, though, Grosse says that they are typically no more aggressive than they are with their bellies full.
They still need to eat, but fortunately they aren't picky.
"I usually tell people that when it comes to survival, the easiest meal is the best meal," said Grosse. "If they find a dead raccoon on the side of the pond, they'll eat that just as quickly as they'll eat something that they have to try and catch."
Once they are all warmed up and their hunger is sated, mating season begins in late spring.