Alligator Mom with Three Legs Cares for Babies: 'Totally Misunderstood'

A three-legged mother alligator has been seen tenderly caring for her babies by building them a nest and carrying them to the water's edge.

In a video uploaded to social media by Owen Lauer, the mother alligator can be seen in Florida limping to the nest and taking the nest apart to get her babies.

"She created this big nest with sticks, twigs, etc. and is now protecting her babies with her life with just 3 limbs," Lauer said in the caption of a Facebook post sharing the video and other pictures.

"If this doesn't show you how incredibly fascinating and resilient these creatures are, I don't know what will. They're totally misunderstood. Staying with their babies for up to two years after hatching shows just that. I felt so blessed to witness this."

croc family
Stock image of two alligators cuddling. A three-legged mother alligator was seen caring for her young, in a unique behavior for reptiles. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Most other species of reptiles do not provide much parental care after eggs are laid or young are born.

"Parental care is extremely well developed in alligators," Coleman M. Sheehy, a herpetologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History, told Newsweek.

"Mothers build nests, guard the nests from predators, and help the nest to incubate within the acceptable range of temperatures. When the eggs are about ready to hatch, the babies call to the mother with a distinctive vocalization, which stimulates the mother to dig to uncover the eggs. Once the eggs are uncovered, the mother will often even help the babies hatch by gently biting the shells. After the babies have hatched, the mother gently picks each one up in her mouth and carries them to a safe area of shallow water where they can safely hunt for food, but she remains with them to protect them for up to two years. This level of protection helps more babies to survive."

Caring for young takes a huge amount of energy from the parent, which they could otherwise use to have many more babies. However, with less care, these young are more vulnerable to dying before reaching adulthood.

"The benefits of providing parental care in the alligator system is that it greatly increases the chances that some of the offspring will make it to adulthood and, thus, that the female successfully passes on her genetic information to future generations," Cathy M. Bodinof Jachowski, an assistant professor at the Department of Forestry & Environmental Conservation, Clemson University, told Newsweek.

"Hatchling alligators have lots of potential predators including larger alligators, mammalian carnivores, and even large birds like herons."

Each species falls somewhere different on this trade-off spectrum in order to maximize their number of healthy offspring surviving. Humans have clearly evolved to prioritise intensive childcare rather than having huge clutches of babies, while some species of fish lay millions of eggs, never to be seen again.

"Some lizards and snakes do provide some level of limited parental care, but most species do not provide any care," Sheehy said. "Crocodilians (e.g., alligators), however, are very different. With crocodilians, parental care is actually the norm rather than the exception, and the reason is explained by their close shared ancestry with birds and dinosaurs."

Crocodilians, birds and non-avian dinosaurs all belong to a group of vertebrates called archosaurs, all sharing common "typical" bird behaviors such as nest building, parental care, territoriality, and displays.

According to Sheehy, the mother alligator might even feel something like what we feel as love towards her young.

"Emotions such as love are caused by hormones, which are part of the endocrine system," Sheehy said. "The endocrine systems of mammals and crocodilians are surprisingly similar, so there is good reason to think mother alligators would feel love towards their young."

Newsweek has asked Lauer for comment.