S.C. study finds startling facts about momma gators named Big Bertha and Betty Davis Eyes

A new study of South Carolina alligators say that females keep having sex and producing healthy babies well into their 60s.
A new study of South Carolina alligators say that females keep having sex and producing healthy babies well into their 60s. Observer staff

A prolonged study of South Carolina alligator has found that the big reptiles don’t grow for as long as scientists previously thought.

But man, are they fertile.

The study, which ran for almost 35 years at a wildlife center near Georgetown, S.C., found that momma gators pushing 70 were still mating and filling their nests with healthy young. One female was still reproducing 46 years after she reached sexual maturity.

“We’re seeing old animals putting out the same number of viable eggs as they did 35 years ago,” said Phil Wilkinson, the retired manager of the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center and a former state wildlife biologist. “I like to think of them as being like a big old oak tree – they drop acorns every so often when the weather’s right.”

According to Wilkinson’s research team, which included wildlife specialists from Clemson University and two states, alligators don’t need blue skies to get in the mood.

The Yawkey Center covers 24,000 acres, and the alligators there have not been hunted for a century. That allowed researchers to study the big reptiles – which go by such names as Truck Biter, Big Bertha and Betty Davis Eyes – for decades. The longer time frame gave scientists the chance to track gator movements and to see how the population reacted to changing conditions. The study appears in Copeia, the journal for the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.

One other thing: Scientists formerly believed that alligators, like pot-bellied pigs with really big teeth, grow until they die.

Not true, says the researchers. Repeated captures of the same gators showed that many reach an optimum size and, unlike the rest of us, stay there. The captured gators ranged in size from 7 feet 9 to 9 feet 7 for females, and 10 feet 8 to 12 feet 6 for males.

Not that the breed doesn’t push beyond those boundaries: Like the big hunchback caught on video in Florida in January, or the angry monster on the Ashepoo River, south of Charleston, that singlehandedly threatened to capsize my entire canoeing party a few years back.

It’s simple, Wilkinson says: “Like people, males can top out and not be very tall, or there can be a Wilt Chamberlain in the crowd.”

Scott Berry has his heart set on finding the 14-foot 'monster' alligator he hooked two years ago and got away. After leading two first-time alligator hunters to Mississippi state records in 2014, it's Berry's turn to find the 'king of the swamp.'

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS