"Gator vs Shark" may sound like the kind of juicy showdown that only plays out in low-budget horror flicks, but it turns out these predatory giants do sometimes clash in the briny shallows. The results, though, are perhaps not quite as dramatic as you might hope ...

Last week, South Carolina-resident Kristen Poillon filmed an alligator cruising through the saltwater of Skull Creek – a part of the Intracoastal Waterway – with what looks like a small bonnethead shark clamped in its jaws. Although gators are not as well-equipped for a dip in the ocean as their reptilian relatives, the crocodiles, it's not unheard of for alligators to brave brackish waters in search of a meal. In fact, this shark-muncher is well-known by the locals who have affectionately dubbed it "Charlie". 

“He doesn’t seem aggressive,”Poillion told the Hilton Head Island Packet when asked about the alligator. “He mostly shows up when the fishing charter boats start back to their season because the eating is good for him off the dock when they clean the fish.”

A study published earlier this year shows that American alligators have started to reclaim saltwater ecosystems in a move that ecologist Brian Silliman describes as "the old norm". It's "the way it used to be before we pushed these species onto their last legs in hard-to-reach refuges. Now, they are returning," he writes in the study. Indeed, there have been a number of alligator sightings off the US coast that help prove Silliman's case. In 2014, an impressive 10-footer strolled ashore at South Carolina's Folly Beach and two years ago another turned up dead in Texas. And then there was the six- to seven-foot gator that that swam a lap around an oil platform some 40 miles off the Louisiana mainland back in 2005.

An animation showing some of the more recent saltwater alligator sightings.

Without lingual glands to secrete salt though, alligators and caimans have a somewhat limited tolerance for full-strength seawater. When they are spotted in the surf, it's usually for short periods of time and American alligators often don't stray further than the brackish waters of estuaries and mangrove swamps. Here, they are able to have a good go at whatever is on the menu: mullet, blue crabs, yellowtail perch, horseshoe crabs, stingrays and event the occasional shark or sea turtle.

Of course, when crocodilians do take on sharks, the results are hardly worthy of making into a movie script: big sharks eat little crocs (and maybe even gators) and big crocs and gators eat little sharks. The bonnethead shark – a small relative of the hammerhead – lives in estuaries and shallow bays so it's not entirely surprising for one to end up on the toothy end of a seafaring gator. According to Science News Magazine, this isn't the first time its happened in Hilton Head waters.

Sadly, Charlie's forays into salty water are likely driven mostly by a desire to get his jaws around some of the scraps thrown off of fishing boats. This increased reliance on human handouts could result in a dangerously habituated alligator in the long-run. Let's hope Charlie sticks to his natural prey and the locals keep their distance.


Top header image: cuatrok77, Flickr