If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? What if it lands right on top of an American alligator?
The question is more than hypothetical for one large reptile flattened by a falling tree in Georgia’s Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge. Maintenance crews discovered the remains of the unfortunate beast this June when they traveled to Wassaw Island to remove debris from Hurricane Matthew, which struck in October 2016.
The area looked like a colossal game of Pick-Up Sticks following the storm, says Joel Vos, who coordinates environmental education for the refuge.
“It was just trees on top of trees on top of trees,” says Vos.
On top of alligators, apparently.
“This is a pretty extreme example of bad luck,” says Abby Lawson, an ecologist with the South Carolina Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit at Clemson University.
While Lawson said this is the first time she’s ever seen a gator laid low by timber, the event may happen more often than we realize. By nature, these reptiles prefer to hang out in remote places, so much of their daily lives passes without our notice. (Watch a rarely seen scene in “Alligator Feeding Frenzy Video Shows Teamwork.”)
Since the tree was large and caught the alligator just behind the skull, it seems likely that the animal died immediately upon impact. However, escape may have been impossible even if the tree had been smaller and the alligator larger. This is because October is the time of year when these reptiles start to eat less, and their metabolisms slow down.
“The days are getting colder, and the nights are starting to get longer,” says Lawson, who is also a member of the IUCN Crocodile Specialist Group. “So the alligator was already in a tough position from the get-go.”
No Place Like Home
Though alligators have survived on Earth for 150 million years, they can still get pushed around by the weather. (See a giant gator in “Massive Alligator Caught on Video Is Not a Hoax.”)
For instance, storms can lead to gators popping up in unexpected places. High winds shift and strengthen the currents they inhabit, which can push the aquatic reptiles further inland. Likewise, storms can bring fresh water to coastal habitats and make them more tolerable for gators, which generally avoid saltwater.
While the alligator in Georgia met a fate like that of the Wicked Witch of the East in The Wizard of Oz, wild weather can also transport these animals to distant realms, like Dorothy and Toto.
Lawson points to an instance from 2008 in which a juvenile alligator that had been tagged by scientists in Louisiana was cast out to sea by Hurricane Ike. It was later found upon a pile of debris that washed ashore in southern Texas, more than 300 miles away.
Alligators do possess a sort of homing instinct, says Lawson, but it usually breaks down after about 60 miles.
While we don’t know for sure how the reptiles weather intense storms, most alligators probably hunker down in underwater dens, coming up for air only when necessary. After all, there’s no place like home.