Or Not

In today’s world many misconceptions have been perpetuated—becoming modern day “facts”—when, in reality, myths and hearsay have taken over. Sorry to burst your bubble, but in this weekly column, Ripley’s puts those delusions to the test, turning your world upside down, because you can’t always…Believe It!

Today: Do alligators live in New York City sewers?.

Sewer Gators

Originally stemming all the way back to the 1930s, but really taking hold of the collective imagination of Americans in the 1950s, stories have persisted over the decades that alligators have been spotted—and live—in the sewers of New York City mainly, but in other cities, as well.

Tales of alligators living and breeding in New York City’s sewer system in the ’30s seem to originate to then Commissioner of New York City’s Sewers, Teddy May.  May was reported as saying several inspectors spotted alligators in the cities’ underground tunnels circa 1935.  Without any real proof of their existence, May set about to rid the city of the phantom gators.  Using poison bait and luring them into the cities’ main tunnels, hunters stood on guard, rifles in hand waiting for the massive reptiles.

Sewer commissioner Teddy May

No sightings of the alligators were filed during the campaign.  However, in 1937, May declared the cities’ sewers were safe for rodents and waste products, once again.

In the 1950s, stories of alligators in NYC sewers caught the imaginations of Americans all over again.  This time, the story had changed a bit.  Stories would focus on families vacationing in Florida, bringing live baby alligators with them back to New York.  Once those little critters grew too big, said family would flush the gator down the toilet and into the sewer system.  As legend has it, the alligators would feast on rats and trash, growing to enormous sizes.  The alligators would turn albino along the way—due to the lack of sunlight—and menace the population at large.

No concrete proof of alligator—albino or otherwise—has ever surfaced.

And while a two-foot alligator was found in the sewers near a restaurant in New York City back in 2010—which is not the 50s—it’s very unlikely that gator would have survived much longer in that environment.

The Reality

Why?  Why would it be unlikely for a gator to survive, let alone grow to massive lengths in the NYC sewer system?  Primarily because alligators are reptiles, which are cold-blooded animals.  Meaning, they can not regulate their body temperatures on their own as humans do—via sweating to cool off or shivering to warm up.

In order to survive, alligators need to warm their bodies by basking in the sun or under a heating lamp for several hours.  Which, living in the NYC sewer system doesn’t provide.  Without the warmth of the sun, alligators end up in a state called “torpor,” where primary bodily functions all but cease.  And while, they can survive several months in this state—like throughout winter—without eventual exposure to the sun, gators would eventually die.

sunning alligator

And, no, even in the unlikely event that an alligator did manage to survive for any length of time in the cold, darkness of a sewer, it wouldn’t turn albino.  Albinism is a mutation in the genetic code that occurs during the gestation process.  Animals don’t lose skin pigment in the absence of light.  They just get cranky and depressed.

By Jesse Gormley, contributor for Ripleys.com