In swampy parts of the southern United States, you'd best keep an eye out for a creature with a leathery hide, a nasty disposition, teeth like a shark, and a brain the size of a lima bean. It's the alligator, a homely reptile that thrives in theme parks, gator farms and, all too frequently to suit local residents, in streams, glades, and canals. In fact, that log drifting down the bayou may have very sharp eyes and sharper teeth.
If an alligator spots a deer -- or a person -- ambling along the riverbank, it can use stubby legs that were fins in its primordial days to lunge out of the water and grab the terrified prey in its fearsome jaws. It drags the thrashing victim underwater, drowns it, and munches away at its leisure.
At tourist attractions in Florida, young men with bodybuilders' physiques wrestle these creatures, which can grow to three meters in length. The gators are not pleased. In the gift shop, tourists buy fried alligator sandwiches, gator chowder, and jewelry made of gator teeth. Alligator hides are prized for belts and cowboy boots. A place called "Gatorland" even exports alligator genitals to the Far East, where they are treasured as aphrodisiacs.
Alligators -- not to be confused with crocodiles, which have a narrower snout and triangular heads but an equally surly attitude -- live in the wild only in China and the southeastern United States. And they've become much more than a curiosity or a nuisance. Last May in central Florida, gators killed three people in separate incidents, spawning a near-panic.
As recently as the 1980s, alligators were an official endangered species in the United States. But thanks to breeding farms and protection programs in the wild, there are now thought to be more than two million American alligators -- alive and perpetually grouchy.