Images of enormous American alligators swaggering across golf courses have become something of a subgenre of viral online content: a reflection of the recovery of the great reptile in the US Southeast – not to mention the healthy supply of golf courses in the region.

The latest release in this category comes our way from the Sea Islands of South Carolina: specifically Fripp Island, and specifically the fourth fairway of the Ocean Point Golf Links at the Fripp Island Golf & Beach Resort. 

The resort's head naturalist Jessica Miller filmed a behemoth of a gator making the rounds (so to speak) on the golf course last month. By measuring matted grass where the stocky reptile took a breather, Miller estimated the gator – distinguished by a raw elbow – at just shy of 12 feet (3.6 metres). 

In a Facebook post sharing the video, the resort celebrated its scaly, scuted resident: "It's amazing to be able to observe and coexist with these ancient giants, and respect is key!"

The male gator's length and mass are impressive: alligators of this size are as burly-looking as crocodilians come, and their laboured gait calls to mind a dinosaur (at least an old-school, outdated stereotype of a dino as hulking and tail-dragging).

As with all big crocodilians, the American alligator's maximum size is much debated. Though an oft-cited 18th-century record of a 19-footer is considered shaky, gators are long-lived, slow-growing beasts whose populations have gradually rebounded from decades of overhunting, so we may only now be getting a modern appreciation for their potential stature. In 2014, hunters in southern Alabama killed a bull gator measuring 14.8 feet (4.5m) and better than 992 pounds (450kg).

A downright titanic male alligator who's done his own well-chronicled fairway constitutionals at a golf course in Palmetto, Florida has been estimated in the vicinity of 15 feet.

What's also notable about the recent South Carolina video is the gator's audience: not just people, but also a herd of white-tailed deer observing from background palmettos. They look alert but not overly alarmed: not really surprising, given the saurian is in their element and in full view.

But alligators are deer-eaters when the opportunity presents itself, as various studies of gator diet and deer mortality prove. That fact was also strikingly demonstrated in 2004, when a United States Fish & Wildlife Service officer photographed a giant gator ("at least 12 to 13 feet long") swimming happily along in Georgia's Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge with a full-grown doe in his jaws.

Deer dinner. Image: Terri Jenkins, USFWS.

In the sprawling swamps, floodplain forests and marshes of the American Southeast, gators prey on large terrestrial mammals such as deer and feral hogs the same way Nile crocs in Africa snatch wildebeest or impala: by ambushing them as they come to drink or when they ford or swim across waterways. 

Venison is just one occasional component of the American alligator's across-the-board menu, which includes everything from frogs and fish to waterfowl, raccoons, muskrats and smaller alligators. The general crocodilian rule holds: bigger gators eat bigger critters – including the odd hoofed course.

However the deer of Fripp Island Golf & Beach Resort coexist with their cold-blooded neighbours, they seemed as suitably awed as the human onlookers by this heavyweight gator's mosey.



Top header image: striderp64/Flickr