Alligators may seem like an unlikely subject on a snowy March morning in Colorado when it is below zero outside. The thing is, when I’m waiting, waiting, waiting for spring to come, my mind turns to warmer climates. And lately, the alligator seems to be a recurring theme in my life.

I was never a big alligator fan, but after a trip to the Everglades last year my mind was changed. The American alligator is often misunderstood as simply a fearsome, prehistoric creature or considered the source of a pair of boots. By the mid part of the 1900s, they had been hunted almost to extinction in the Everglades. Eventually they were placed on the Endangered Species List, the hunting was banned, and some of the natural hydrology of the Everglades was restored (that’s a whole other story!). Now they’ve recovered to the point where a trip to Shark Valley will reveal a landscape dotted with them.

The most interesting thing I learned about alligators though, was that they are a keystone species and ecosystem engineers. Prior to the dry season, when most of the water disappears, these creatures dig alligator holes. These holes hold water throughout the dry season and provide refuge for many other species. And without the alligator holes, these other species would not survive. Now you may think these alligator holes turn into something of a buffet for their hosts, but they don’t. Most of the other species that take refuge there make it through the season because the alligators are estivating (something akin to hibernating).