Are There Alligators In Tennessee?

You might have seen recent reports of alligator sightings in the Volunteer State and even in Kentucky. Are these once-off occurrences, or are there alligators in Tennessee that we should be wary of?

There are alligators in Tennessee, but population numbers are low, and they are likely to migrate away during harsher winters. Wildlife authorities claim that there are fewer than 1000 alligators in the state, mainly located to the southwest, near the Mississippi river.

Alligators are hardy reptiles, but when temperatures drop below a certain point, they will have to leave the area or perish.

The winters in Tennessee are too harsh for the species to establish a permanent population, and their distribution will likely be limited. But how did alligators arrive in the state, and what should you do if you encounter one?

Alligator resting next to the road

Alligators Do Live In Tennessee, But Only Periodically

Historical maps of the range of alligators include areas along the Mississippi River (from which alligators derive their name), including Shelby County, near Memphis, and even further north. 

Recently, alligators have been seen more regularly within the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers and can be found in McKellar Lake. Still, according to wildlife experts, their continued presence is unlikely.

Colder winters will either kill off or force most alligators to migrate to more temperate climes. 

Given some time, alligators can build up some body mass and fat reserve to help them withstand some of the cold, but exceptionally harsh winters will take their toll on reptile populations. Younger or leaner alligators will likely perish when the mercury drops too much.

To survive the winters in Tennessee, alligators undergo a process known as brumation, a state of decreased metabolism and restfulness in reptiles.

They will not eat but instead seek shelter and wait. If the alligators are in the water when it freezes, they will stick their nose out so the ice forms around their snout, but they can keep breathing.

How Widely Are Alligators Spread Throughout Tennessee?

Reports of alligator sightings in Tennessee have been made from Memphis in western Tennessee to Bradley County, near the Appalachian Mountains in the east.

Most alligators are located in the southern and western parts of the state since that is closer to their source, and the temperatures are more favorable to alligators.

Strangely, alligators have actually been spotted in the state of Kentucky to the north. There have been at least three known reports of alligators living in Kentucky since 2015.

However, the animals didn’t live for a very long time as the weather got too cold in each case. Alligators cannot live in water that is colder than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so they can probably freeze to death when winter hits the water.

Usually, you also wouldn’t expect to find alligators in the mountain regions of Tennessee since the terrain isn’t exactly to their liking, and it frequently gets quite chilly.

In recent years, only a handful of alligators have been sighted in eastern Tennessee (usually escaped pets).

Alligators are pretty scarce, even in the northern parts of Georgia and Alabama.

Despite alligators being cautious of being near humans, they are not limited to uninhabited areas outside towns and cities. 

Alligators have been seen in downtown Memphis and other cities in Tennessee, including Bartlett, Collierville, and Germantown.

How Did Alligators Get Into Tennessee?

Alligators in Tennessee are thought to have migrated north from more southern states.

Alligator populations are well established in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, with each of these states boasting several thousand alligators.

When the summer months arrive, and alligators thrive, they seek more territory to breed and may head up rivers or walk at night.

In some instances, people may have decided to adopt an alligator as a pet before realizing how big they become, how expensive it would be to feed them, and how dangerous they can be to their family and pets.

This Alligator Just Wants to Cuddle You

The alligators may then be abandoned or released into the wild to live out the remainder of their days, which may be dozens of years.

Conservationists may also deliberately have brought alligators into the area. An effort to prevent alligators from going extinct in 1979 resulted in alligators being taken into Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama to the south.

Authorities were forced to recapture the alligators due to community fightback. The consensus is that several of them found their way north up the Tennessee River instead.

As temperatures rise, more alligators will travel deeper into Tennessee and dwell within its rivers.

While wildlife officials in Tennessee are unaware of any breeding pairs of alligators in the state, larger males and females will eventually find one another and start building nests.

But whether the hatchlings can withstand freezing winter temperatures remains to be seen.

How Should You Act If You Encounter An Alligator?

Wildlife experts in Tennessee suggest that people keep their distance from alligators. The alligators in Tennessee are unaccustomed to the presence of humans and will not have started associating people with food sources.

Aggression in alligators mainly stems from the frustration of people withholding food they shared freely before.

Human beings are not on the menu for alligators, who prefer to eat fish, snakes, frogs, birds, turtles, and small mammals, including raccoons and deer. There have been numerous reports of alligators targeting people’s pets, though.

It is important to remember that alligators are naturally carnivorous and opportunistic and that they will instinctively go for smaller prey.

Alligators prefer to do much of their hunting during the night and are also more active during the transitional periods between day and night.

Avoiding getting too close to any bodies of water during the dark is advisable. Children and pets should be kept expressly away from riverbanks.

Female alligators may also attack anyone that strays too close to their nest. Walking near the water’s edge, you must always watch out for their nests, which look like piles of mud and vegetation, roughly three feet deep and six feet in diameter.

Alligators seldom leave their nests unattended and are fiercely protective, so stay as far away as possible, especially during nesting season in June.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) believes that alligators will likely become a common sight in the state, and people will have to learn to coexist with them in harmony.

Alligators are a protected species in Tennessee, and you may not catch or hunt them unless you have been issued a permit.

Baby alligators laying in the sun

Final Thoughts On Alligators In Tennessee

While the number of alligators living in Tennessee is increasing, the likelihood of significant, sustained populations of alligators isn’t very high.

The temperatures in the northern parts of the state preclude alligator survival, and most alligators will likely migrate away to the southwestern regions should harsher winters arrive.

Although some alligators in the Volunteer State likely entered via the Mississippi river, those found outside the areas of Shelby County are probably the result of owners releasing unwanted pets.

It is illegal to capture or kill alligators in Tennessee, so if you encounter an alligator, it is best to alert authorities and keep a safe distance if they are likely to threaten the lives of people or animals.