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Ask Your Weird Animal Questions: Alligators and Regenerators

How long do [alligators] stay outside water? Are they comfortable for long periods of time? —Vamsi Having just settled in to stay at a Florida house with a lake ten yards from the back door, I have a vested interest in this question, which came from the story Beware in the Bayou: Alligators and Crocodiles Can...

How long do [alligators] stay outside water? Are they comfortable for long periods of time? —Vamsi

Having just settled in to stay at a Florida house with a lake ten yards from the back door, I have a vested interest in this question, which came from the story Beware in the Bayou: Alligators and Crocodiles Can Climb. After all, I might look outside to find myself with a big, toothy backyard guest.

Photo of an american alligator in the Okeefenokee Swamp.
An American alligator in Okefenokee, Georgia. Photograph by Farrell Grehan, National Geographic

But it’s good to know how long any guest is going to stay, so I called Mark Hostetler at the University of Florida, who said, not surprisingly, that an alligator can do whatever it darn well pleases.

“Alligators are near the water because that’s where they feed, mainly, but they can stay in the sun all day if they want to,” he says. “They’re reptiles. They breathe air,” so there’s not really a time limit for them to be out of the water.

Freshwater Species of the Week 2

Seeing one on shore isn’t necessarily cause for alarm. Hostetler says most wild alligators don’t view adult humans as prey; they have a natural fear of humans. An alligator that has been fed by humans, though, can be dangerous because it will have lost that natural fear. It might not see you as food but as a place to get food, increasing the chance of human-gator contact. And that could get dangerous, especially for any pets or small children nearby.

Gators may instinctively lash out if you don’t see them and surprise them or if you step on them, grab them, or tease them.

So don’t—wait a minute. Do we really have to tell anyone not to tease an alligator?

[In regard to Pictures: 5 Animals That Regrow Body Parts]I really enjoy all that information. I want to see some more. —cat

Regenerating animals are always fun to learn about, so I took cat’s curiosity to James Sikes of the University of San Francisco and asked him about one that was new to me, Hydractinia echinata. These jellyfish relatives are also fetchingly known as “snail fur” due to the furry look the tiny marine polyps create when they colonize the back of a snail or hermit crab shell.

An Acadian hermit crab with snail fur hydroid growing on its shell in Nova Scotia, Canada. Photograph by Scott Leslie, Minden Pictures/Corbis

The species, described here on the Marine Life Information Network, is being used for research by Uri Frank of the National University of Ireland, Galway, who has said that they are “perfect for understanding the role of stem cells in development, aging, and disease.” (Related: Spiderman Ready: 5 Animals That Regrow Body Parts

“They are constantly re-forming their body, sloughing off dead cells and replacing them with brand-new cells. They’re rebuilding their body 24/7 so that they really don’t age,” Sikes says.

They can also regenerate any lost body part and clone themselves.

“They’re pretty good at the game,” says Sikes, who led a study in which changing the activity of a single gene in a flatworm that had lost its regenerative ability enabled the worm to regrow its head.

Sikes says the “powerhouse” regenerators are flatworms, ribbon worms, salamanders, newts, and tadpoles, which can regrow a lost tail—except during a short window of time, a few hours, during which that ability is turned off.

And back to our alligators for a moment: They can also regrow lost teeth.

It is not unusual among parasitic wasps for only the females to have wings. Are there any non-hymenopterous insects with winged females and wingless males? —Robert C. Brooke

You never hear anyone complain about getting stung by a member of the Hymenoptera, though it’s quite possible. This large order of insects includes ants, wasps, sawflies, horntails, and bees. You can get a nice, detailed overview of them here on North Carolina State University’s website. 

As for insects of different orders with sex-specific wing distribution, Philip Koehler of the University of Florida tells us via email that in one group the guys are the fliers.

“Cockroaches are primitive insects and can also have wings according to sex,” Koehler writes. “However, typically the males will have wings and the females do not.”

So why do different sexes get their pilot’s license, depending on the insect?

“A lot of this has to do with getting the sexes together,” Koehler says. In cockroaches the males go off in search of fertile females, “whereas in the Hymenoptera it can be that the females are dispersing.”

Love-hungry flying cockroaches. Sweet dreams!

Got a question about the weird and wild animal world? Tweet me or leave me a note on Facebook.

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Meet the Author

Liz Langley
Liz Langley is the award-winning author of Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad and has written for many publications including Salon, Details and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @LizLangley and at