Exploring the Wetlands with "When I Was an Alligator"
Louisiana's wetlands are unique and vital to so many species, but they are quickly disappearing. Gayle Webre and Drew Beech’s new children’s book, When I Was an Alligator, is a work of art featuring a Cajun kid who transforms into many wetland animals and insects while she is sleeping. Not only is the book engaging and beautiful, it is also educational. Webre spent about a year researching wetland wildlife before writing the book to ensure that exploring with this curious Cajun kid would be a fun way to learn about the plentiful and distinctive life on Louisiana’s coast. The end of the book includes facts about the wetlands and questions for curious kids to ponder. Below are more facts about the fascinating wildlife featured in When I Was an Alligator to share with curious kids of all ages!
Although alligators are slow on land, their long, strong tails enable them to quickly propel themselves through water. Alligators are also great mothers. After baby alligators hatch, the mother carries the babies in her mouth and puts them in the water. The babies stay with their mother for at least a year, but some live with her for as much as three years! A crucial fact about alligators is that they make holes, called alligator holes, in the wetlands that stay filled with water during the dry season. These holes are important because other wetland creatures use them to stay safe. Alligators were endangered for a long time because hunters valued them, but the state and federal government protected them and now they are thriving again. Alligators must be kept safe because the wetlands need the alligators almost as much as the alligators need the wetlands.
Herons need the wetlands because they like to hunt in shallow water. They wade carefully and gracefully through the water, standing perfectly still for long periods of time until they see a fish or other small creature to eat, and then they often swallow it whole. Herons also like to make their nests in tall trees, sometimes nesting in large groups. They are migratory birds and spend the seasons in different regions. Herons can be found all over the United States, in southern Canada, and even sometimes in Central and South America.
Opossums are North America’s only marsupial, which means they carry their babies in a pouch. They like to stay near permanent sources of water, like the wetlands, but opossums are not picky! They will live in lots of different places like in a log or under a porch. Opossums are also foragers and will eat almost anything they find. You might find them trying to eat your garbage, but they also eat fruit, insects, eggs, birds, and other small animals. They support the environment by eating pests, including ticks, and they are immune to most venoms, so they eat things like snakes and scorpions. Opossums sometimes pretend to be sick or dead when they’re scared, confusing their predators and keeping them safe. Their tails act as extra hands; they use them to climb and carry things. Sometimes, young opossums even use them to hang upside down from tree branches!
Snapping turtles have pointy, triangular heads and strong jaws. Alligator snapping turtles can be huge, and their spiny faces and shells make them look like dinosaurs. During the day, alligator snapping turtles like to hide at the bottom of the deepest part of a body of water. Their spiny shells make them look like logs sitting on the floor, successfully camouflaging them. These turtles have a secret weapon—their tongue looks like a worm! When they are hungry, they open up their mouths and unsuspecting creatures swim inside to try to eat their worm-like tongue. Female turtles sometimes go onto dry land to bury their eggs. If you see one, you should leave it alone! Their bites are dangerous, but luckily, they don’t usually attack humans
"Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)" by Peter Paplanus, licensed under CC BY 2.0
American Alligator - National Park Service
Great Blue Heron - BioKIDS
Alligator Snapping Turtle - Animal Diversity Web
Virginia Opossum - Penn State New Kensington
The Opossum - Cornell Wildlife Health Lab