An alligator is a crocodilian in the genus Alligator of the family Alligatoridae. The two extant species are the American alligator (A. mississippiensis) and the Chinese alligator (A. sinensis). Additionally, several extinct species of alligator are known from fossil remains. Alligators first appeared during the Oligocene epoch about 37 million years ago.
The name "alligator" is probably an anglicized form of el lagarto, the Spanish term for "the lizard", which early Spanish explorers and settlers in Florida called the alligator. Later English spellings of the name included allagarta and alagarto.
Alligators are native to only the United States, Mexico, and China.
American alligators are found in the southeast United States: all of Florida and Louisiana; the southern parts of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi; coastal South and North Carolina; East Texas, the southeast corner of Oklahoma, and the southern tip of Arkansas. Louisiana has the largest alligator population. The majority of American alligators inhabit Florida and Louisiana, with over a million alligators in each state. Southern Florida is the only place where both alligators and crocodiles live side by side. A small population is also found in Tamaulipas, in Mexico.
American alligators live in freshwater environments, such as ponds, marshes, wetlands, rivers, lakes, and swamps, as well as in brackish water. When they construct alligator holes in the wetlands, they increase plant diversity and provide habitat for other animals during droughts. They are, therefore, considered an important species for maintaining ecological diversity in wetlands. Farther west, in Louisiana, heavy grazing by coypu and muskrat are causing severe damage to coastal wetlands. Large alligators feed extensively on coypu, and provide a vital ecological service by reducing coypu numbers.
The Chinese alligator currently is found in only the Yangtze River valley and parts of adjacent provinces and is extremely endangered, with only a few dozen believed to be left in the wild. Indeed, far more Chinese alligators live in zoos around the world than can be found in the wild. Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in southern Louisiana has several in captivity in an attempt to preserve the species. Miami MetroZoo in Florida also has a breeding pair of Chinese alligators.