How Do Alligators Make It Through a Freeze?

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The alligators positioned their snouts above the water's surface just before it froze. Shallotte River Swamp Park

Ever wonder how alligators have managed to find their way in this ever-changing planet for the last 66 million years or so?

Look no further than the American alligators that call North Carolina’s Shallotte River Swamp Park home. When a surprise snowstorm blasted the area in early January, the swamps in the park’s 3,000-square-foot enclosure froze over.

"It was incredible really because it’s southeastern North Carolina," George Howard, the park’s general manager, tells MNN. "It’s certainly not a typical place where we get ice like that. But it certainly did this year."

The 10 alligators there had positioned their snouts just above the water’s surface only moments before it froze solid. For people who came across the scene, it made for a surreal scene — an ice rink, studded with razor-sharp teeth.

"I looked and I was kind of aghast. I was like, 'What in the world is that?'” Howard recalls. "It didn't take but a couple of seconds to realize what it is that they were doing."

Alligator with nostrils poking up from frozen surface
The park's general manager recalls being a little 'aghast' when he first saw the tooth-lined ice rink. Shallotte River Swamp Park

Although Howard had never seen alligators encased in ice before, he knew the animals took to bizarre behavior — especially under bizarre circumstances.

"It’s a survival mechanism that they do in the event they need to breathe. They stick their noses up out of the water and if it freezes, it will freeze around their snout and still allow them to breathe."

During the winter months, alligators go through a kind of semi-shutdown called brumation, slowing their metabolism to a crawl, foregoing food and floating up to the surface for the briefest sips of oxygen.

But in this case, their uncanny sense of timing may have saved them from being trapped under the ice for a fatal stretch.

"It was probably three days that it was like that," Howard explains. (And check out his visual walk-through of the alligators in the video at bottom.)

And when the ice melted, he adds, the freed gators "did a little happy dance" before getting back to the business of doing absolutely nothing for the winter.

"They’re perfectly fine."

An alligator's snout pokes out from a frozen swamp
Gradually, the ice melted, starting around the alligators' nostrils. Shallotte River Swamp Park

But then again, these alligators may have an especially urgent drive to survive. All of them are second-chancers — many saved from the most brutal circumstances.

"We have a baby that is about eight inches long that was being sold on Facebook," Howard explains. "We have two more larger alligators that were being used as guard dogs at a drug dealer’s house."

About the only thing these alligators won’t survive now is being returned to the wild, which is why they will spend the rest of their lives in this sprawling eco-park, taking snow squalls, frozen swamps — even the next Ice Age, if necessary — in typical reptilian stride.