Crocodiles & Alligators

What are crocodiles?

The American crocodile

Crocodiles belong to the family of crocodilians, which also include alligators, caimans and gavials. They are close relatives to dinosaurs, and are the largest reptiles in the world.

Crocodiles live in warm, and in most places, such as the Amazon rain forest or the Everglades swamps of South Florida. They rely on their sharp teeth and powerful jaws to capture prey. They feed on a variety of animals ranging from insects and frogs to fish, turtles, and birds.

Crocodiles have very strong jaws. They do not chew their food. They swallow it in large chunks. In the stomach the food is broken down. Crocodiles grab their prey and move to deep water, where they roll over to drown the animal. They can leap high out of the water to reach their prey if necessary.

What are alligators?

The American alligator

Alligators are large, semi-aquatic carnivorous reptiles with four legs and a huge tail. The tail is half the animal's length, which helps propel the alligator through the water. It is also used to make pools of water during the dry seasons, acts as a weapon, and stores fat that the alligator will use for nourishment during the winter. Alligators are cold blooded (ectothermic) and do not make their own body heat. They gain body heat by basking in the sun.

There are two types of alligators, one of which is the American alligator that grows up to 19 feet (3.5 m) long, and up to 600 pounds (270 kg). The other is the Chinese alligator, which grows to be about 6 feet long (1.8 m).

Alligators outnumber crocodiles 1,000 to 1 in the wild in North America. The American crocodile is considered endangered, with a wild population of less than 500. The American alligator population is estimated at about 1.5 million.

The differences

There is very little difference between any of the crocodilians. Alligators have a wide, flat head with rounded snouts. The head of an alligator looks like the letter U. Crocodiles have more pointed snouts. The head of a crocodile looks like the handle of a baseball bat. Another easy way to tell crocodiles from alligators is to observe their teeth. When alligators close their mouth, their lower teeth cannot be seen. In crocodiles, their lower teeth can be seen even when they shut their mouth tightly.

Geographically, true crocodiles live in Africa, Asia and the Americas; alligators are found in China and the Southern United States.