The 5 Main Differences Between Alligators and Crocodiles
Many people are unaware that there's a difference between alligators and crocodiles and use both terms interchangeably to describe any large water-dwelling lizard with big teeth.
What these people don't realize is that despite some similarities, the two reptiles don't look or behave the same way as each other. They also belong to different biological families.
So what is the difference between alligators and crocodiles? Well, there are essentially five things to look out for when you are seeking to tell them apart.
- Shape of the snout
- Size and aggression
- Freshwater vs. saltwater
Once you understand the differences, it is actually pretty easy to tell them apart. I explore the differences in more detail below.
Alligators live only in the southeastern USA and eastern China, whereas crocodiles can be found right across the world in Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia, North America, South America and Central America.
If you are in the USA, then you are far more likely to encounter an alligator than a crocodile. Although there is an American crocodile species, they only live in the southernmost tip of Florida, whereas alligators can be found right across Florida and Louisiana, as well as parts of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.
Alligators also heavily outnumber crocodiles in the USA. There are over 3 million alligators, but less than 2000 crocodiles. Southern Florida is the only place in the world where you will find crocodiles and alligators living side by side.
2. Different Snouts
One of the main differences between alligators and crocodiles is the snout.
The alligator's is broader and shaped like a U, whereas the crocodile’s is longer and narrower and more V-shaped. The alligator bite is more powerful, because it is specialized for breaking open things like turtle shells. The crocodile’s snout is more suited to hunting general prey, including fish, reptiles and mammals.
The snouts are easy to tell apart when closed as the alligator has none of its bottom teeth visible, whereas the crocodile’s lower fourth tooth can always be seen.
3. Size and Aggression
There is a general size difference between alligators and crocodiles. An adult crocodile can grow up to roughly 19 feet long, whereas for alligators the length is around 14 feet.
Crocodiles can also move much faster on land than alligators.
Behaviorally, Alligators, while definitely dangerous, are relatively timid compared to crocodiles, and will generally try to escape if approached by humans, usually heading for the nearest water and swimming away.
The only time that wild alligators will usually attack humans is if they are unexpectedly disturbed, provoked, or they are defending their young.
Alligators are instinctively afraid of humans, but can lose some of that fear if they come into regular contact with humans. Feeding them (except in controlled conditions) is almost always a bad idea as they will lose some of their fear and see humans as a source of food. They can also mistake small children and pet dogs for prey.
Crocodiles, on the other hand, are much more bad-tempered and far more likely to attack adult humans, even if they are unprovoked
Australian saltwater crocodiles, followed by the Nile crocodiles are generally being seen by experts as the most dangerous types that you will find in the world. American crocodiles, on the other hand, are one of the more timid types that you will find and they rarely attack humans. In the USA, you are more likely to be attacked by an alligator, although attacks by either are very rare.
Did you know?
Fatalities from alligator attacks in the US are actually very rare. The average annual fatality rate for death by alligator in the US is actually only 0.3. That means on average, one person dies every three years.
That's actually a very small figure when you consider how many people and alligators there are in the south eastern area of the USA. The truth is that you are more likely to be killed by domestic dogs, bee or wasp stings, spider bite, rattlesnake, mountain lion, or shark.
4. Freshwater and Saltwater
Crocodiles have special glands in their tongues which excrete excess salt from their bodies. This means that they are capable of spending days, or even weeks at sea.
Alligators have these glands as well but they don’t work so well, so they usually stick to freshwater habitats, although they can sometimes be found in brackish water (a mixture of salt and freshwater).
This difference between alligators and crocodiles explains why crocodiles have managed to spread across the islands of the Caribbean and alligators haven't.
Crocodile hides tend to be more of a light tan, or olive color, whereas alligators are usually a dark blackish grey.
(The exact shade of an alligator skin depends on the quality of the water that the alligator swims in. Tannic acid from overhanging trees will make them darker, algae will make them greener).
© 2011 Paul Goodman