What is the Difference Between a Crocodile and an Alligator?
While they look similar to the untrained eye, crocodiles and alligators do have distinct differences. These two types of reptiles are found in different parts of the world, and have unique physical distinctions, including different shaped snouts. Both are part of the Crocodilia order, along with caimans and gharials, which also share a superficial resemblance.
In terms of physical differences, observing the snout — the mouth and nose — is one of the simplest ways to distinguish between a crocodile and an alligator. Crocodiles have long, narrow, V-shaped snouts, while those of alligators are wider and U-shaped. These differences are indicative of the type of diet that each species favors. The wide snout of the alligator packs more crushing power, making it easier to secure prey such as turtles. By contrast, the narrow snout of the crocodile is suited for fish as well as small mammals.
The jaws found on a typical crocodile and an alligator are also different. The upper and lower jaws of the crocodile are essentially the same width, with the teeth exposed in an interlocking pattern. They also have a large, protruding fourth tooth on the lower jaw that is accommodated by depressions in the upper jaw just behind the nostrils. The alligator, however, has a wider upper jaw, allowing the lower teeth to fit into it snugly, effectively hiding them from view. Only the teeth of the upper jaw are exposed along the lower jaw line.
Alligators and crocodiles are also slightly different colors. The typical crocodile tends to have a coloration that is an olive brown hue. Alligators usually have a darker, almost black appearance.
Location and Habitat
Crocodiles and alligators are also found in different locations around the globe. Both crocodiles and alligators do well in environments that feature slow moving rivers with grasslands located adjacent to the river banks. Crocodiles live in parts of North, Central, and South America, and can be found in areas of Africa, Australia, and the southeast part of Asia. Alligators are native in the eastern section of China and the southern area of the United States, and are most common in states along the Gulf Coast. The lingual salt glands in crocodiles allows them to be more at home in salt water than alligators.
Branches of the Family Tree
In some circles, it is considered proper to refer to these families as being different branches of a common tree. There are 23 different species in the Crocodilia order found in the world today, and each is in one of three families. The Crocodylidae family includes all the species of crocodiles. The Alligatoridae family includes two subfamilies: Alligatorinae, or alligators, and Caimaninae, or caimans. Caimans resemble alligators and crocodiles, although most species are much smaller. The third family, Gavialidae, includes only one species: the gharial.
Caimans and Gharials
Similar in appearance to other members of the same order, both caimans and gharials are long, semi-aquatic reptiles with extended snouts. Caimans are in the same family as alligators, but most species are much smaller — often around 6.5 to 8 feet (2 to 2.5 meters) long compared to 13 feet (4 meters) for American alligators. These reptiles are found in Central and South America. The gharial, found only in India, has a much narrower snout than other species in this order.
Both crocodiles and alligators possess a great deal of strength and speed, and even on land, these reptiles are able to pursue and overtake prey with relative ease. People who have not been trained to deal with these animals should not make direct contact. In the event that a crocodile or an alligator has escaped from a zoo or wildlife sanctuary, or wandered from the wild into a populated area, anyone who sees it should leave the immediate area and report the sighting to the authorities.
This was very helpful.
Well I've just been watching 'Swamp People' and I was surprised at how small the alligators are, maxing out at around 13 feet. The Australian saltwater crocodile typically ranges from 13-18 feet, and there have been ones caught that are over 20 feet. These are the largest reptiles or earth and are very dangerous creatures, man-eaters. The other crocodile found in Australia is the Johnson's crocodile, which is about the same size as the American alligator and is not considered dangerous (people often swim in waterholes known to have Johnson's living there), but they do take smaller pets.
I live in Wilmington, NC and their are alligators in the lake there. I said I would never go to that park because of them and a friend said "don't worry, alligators won't eat you, only crocs". I didn't see that mentioned in the article and I'm still afraid to go to that lake.
Can you outrun a crocodile/alligator if you see one face to face?
Thank you very much. My wife understands now.
@anon241099: In general, reptiles all consume their prey the same way: they swallow it whole. Now, alligators have been known to "stash" very large prey (like a deer) underwater until the carcass rots sufficiently to be soft enough to be swallowed whole. Yeah, I know. Anyway, a croc would almost certainly do the same thing, since they are reptiles and share 99 percent of the same characteristics as a gator. Neither animal has teeth that are particularly suited for chewing, per se, although they are excellent for tearing.
This article did not mention (or I missed it)the one thing I was looking for). I was told one difference between crocs and alligators is that one swallows its prey whole, while the other bites and chews it. If this is true, which is which?
Are alligators more docile than crocodiles?
why is the indian mugger an exception to the basic feature of crocs? how are the mating habits of crocodiles and alligators different? do they care for their young? and thanks for the info on the DPR's!
I live in Arkansas and three years ago a very small gator appeared in our pond. He has been here since then, except for the last eight months he disappeared. Yesterday he is back and very large. We have cattle that drink from that pond. Wondering if he or she will attack our baby calves?
When I was young, we used to swim with the alligators at Wakulla Springs in Northern Florida. Although a college student at Florida State in Tallahassee, I thought alligators were safe and crocs were not. I was 19, not so very young. There were glass bottom boats there full of tourists, a dock and a diving board for swimmers.
Contrary as I was, I swam beyond the midline in the spring and then suddenly felt this primal fear in my being. Glancing left, I noticed, but moreover felt this 12-14 ft alligator just four or five feet behind me. I was 5'3", 102 lbs and I swam for my precious life back to that dock. I'll never forget that moment of my life, and know that I escaped death. How stupid was I, a super intelligent college student? Yes, I graduated with honors. Thank goodness!
To the one who said "leave them alone and they'll leave you alone", I will never go swimming in fresh water here in Florida unless I know for certain there are none around. Growing up here in Sarasota, FL, I went swimming in creeks and ponds all the time in summer. I was just lucky. I have even occasionally seen them on the beach.
We had a fatal attack in a recognized swimming pond at Oscar Scherer State Park. Went swimming at dusk. Big mistake.
This was great as everyone else has said! We are from Maine but my stepson definitely wanted to know the difference and most of all, where they live! Great work.
Thanks so much for this info. it helped me explain the difference of the two to my 89 year old dad. Which only goes to show everybody that we learn something new every day! Cheers!
Which animal would win in a fight, the croc or alli? I think the alli would win because it seems more robust?
Great page, wanted some more info while watching the animal planet, but noticed that the second paragraph, the croc has the more powerful bite, 5000psi vs the gator 2000 psi
@anon69352 alligators are not as gentle as you make them appear. they are very territorial and they also have mating seasons that make them claim house pools for mating and most of all -- they get desperate for food and start challenging people.
@Dayton: The alligators are hunted for their meat and for their skin (hide? not sure what it would be called). The meat is mostly in the tail of the gator and some people say it tastes like chicken. Alligators are also killed because of man encroaching on their habitat and the misconception that gators pose a threat to man. If people did not harass or feed a gator they will leave men alone as well.
Feeding the gators cause the gators to associate people with food and they lose their natural fear of men. So when a gator is found to be in an area like a pond or backyard pool and cannot be relocated they are destroyed.
Though we've got both here in south Florida, I've never stopped to look carefully enough to tell which I've just caught sight of. The key rule is to just turn in the opposite direction--and to do it quickly.
Has there been any attempt to cross breed crocodiles and alligators? Or have there been any documented natural cross breeding of these animals particularly in places like Florida swamps where they cohabitate?
thank you very much. this information was most helpful in explaining the difference to my boys.
Superb! I can share this with my kindergarten students. Very detailed yet easy to understand. Also talks about conservation of animals. Thanks wisegeek.
Thanks for the differences. Sorted out an argument at work. All I need to find out now is who would win a fight to the death a crocodile or an alligator.
This is exactly what I needed to explain the difference to my son. Thanks!
I had to prove to my husband that I was right about a few things! And like always, I was right.
This had been very helpful for a preschool lesson. We were doing "A" for alligator but whenever they saw a picture they'd call out "crocodile." It was cool to throw in an extra lesson in the differences because I didn't know.
I just came back from Cancun, they have both caimans/alligators *and* crocodiles, so I guess Southern Florida is not the only place in the world where they cohabitate.
Thank you. this is very well-explained article. Somebody asked me this question a couple of days back and now I know.
I believe they are also farmed for their meat.
Great article! I can picture the differences, and now they're clear. I was wondering, though, I know that alligators are/have been hunted for leather--is there another reason to hunt crocs and alligators? Does anyone know why they were so over-hunted?
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