Have your students ever asked you what the differences between alligators and crocodiles are? It is an important topic which you may even want to include in your lesson plan, if your students are interested in this topic.
There are many differences between alligators and crocodiles, but these two reptiles also have a lot in common. Imagine this, you are canoeing on a river during a sweltering afternoon, and you see what looks like a log floating around on murky waters. Without warning, it starts moving closer, and you see eyes poking above the water, and suddenly, it is looking at you. And now you know it’s time to get out of there as fast as you can. Quickly telling the difference between alligators and crocodiles is super important. Well, that’s pretty understandable because these two reptiles have a lot in common. However, these two reptiles are very different when it comes to their appearance (which you will also see in the video below.) But before we can get there, let’s have a look at what is similar.
Both alligators and crocodiles belong to the Crocodilia family. All of them are known as crocodilians, but only a handful of them are real crocodiles. They are both cold-blooded, which implies that they do not generate their body heat. Alligators and crocodiles live in similar wet conditions in or near water sources such as marshes, rivers, and lakes, and they all like swimming. In terms of what they eat, they are all carnivores meaning that they eat meat, which they get by hunting in the water and dry land. Some of their favorite prey includes birds, deer, fish, turtles, wild pigs, and birds.
The two can look very similar, and it is easy to see why anyone would find it hard to distinguish between these two reptiles. Although it is not that difficult, having said that, let’s look at the difference between alligators and crocodiles.
It is not uncommon for people to interchangeably use alligators and crocodiles to describe any giant lizard in water. They don’t realize that although these two reptiles have a fair share of similarities, they don’t behave or look the same. Moreover, they don’t belong to the same biological family.
Eight Ways to Tell the Difference Between Alligators and Crocodiles
- The snout. If you look closely, the alligator has a U shaped snout, and the upper jaw is wide, while that of a crocodile is V-shaped and the upper jaw somewhat sharp.
- Location. You can find an American alligator in parts of the US and China, Crocodiles in Africa, South East Asia, Australia, and the American crocodile in South America and Central America.
- Habitat. Most crocodiles prefer living in salty water, while the American alligator is perfect in freshwater habitats such as rivers and lakes.
- Toothy Grin. A crocodile’s teeth are always exposed even when the mouth is closed, but alligators can conceal their teeth when they shut their mouths.
- Length. A fully grown crocodile is several feet longer than an adult alligator. It means that generally, crocodiles are more giant than alligators.
- Colour. A crocodile’s skin usually is lighter than most alligators.
- Speed. Both in water and on land, crocodiles are slower than alligators. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that they are bulkier.
- Behavior. Crocodiles are very aggressive when compared to alligators. They are responsible for several deaths. On the other hand, alligators are more docile and tame.
Crocodiles have evolved special salt glands on their tongues, which helps them excrete excess salt from their bodies. This makes it possible for them to inhabit both saltwater and freshwater. Though alligators also have these glands in the matchup, they are not that effective, so they prefer living only in freshwater. This difference explains why crocodiles have been able to colonize several parts of the world.
Alligators are normally found in eastern China and the southeastern USA, while crocodiles can be found in Africa, South East Asia, Australia, South America, and Central America. Therefore, if you live in the United States, you will likely encounter an alligator rather than a crocodile. However, there are also crocodile species found in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas.
Snouts and Teeth
The most prominent difference to know about the two reptiles is the snout shape. The crocodile has a V-shaped snout and is also longer and narrower, while the alligator has a U shaped snout, and it is also wider and blunt. The alligator’s snout is shaped this way, perhaps due to the nature of its diet. This snout helps it break turtle shells, while the sharper V-shaped snout for a crocodile is adapted to general hunting prey such as fish, mammals, and reptiles. The teeth of the lower jaw of a crocodile stick out, while the lower jaw of an alligator is wide, and the teeth are not visible when the snout is closed.
- Crocodile snout shape
- Alligator snout shape
The easiest way to tell a crocodile and alligator apart is when their snouts are closed. For an alligator, the upper jaw is wider, and no teeth are visible at the bottom of the mouth. The crocodile’s upper jaw is smaller, and the lower teeth are prominently visible. Crocodiles have several teeth sticking from the upper jaw, which gives them a very jagged smile. But the fourth tooth is the one you should pay attention to. The fourth tooth on each side of the lower jaw of the crocodile sticks up. There is no such smile for an alligator because it can hide its teeth when the snout is closed.
Size and Colour
When it comes to size, crocodiles are the winners. The largest one weighed 2000 pounds and was over 23 feet long. The biggest gator weighs only 1000 pounds and is only 19 feet long. Adult crocodiles can reach a whopping 19 feet long. Alligators are relatively smaller since they can only reach a maximum length of 14 feet. Crocodiles can grow to be very big, and their bite is the strongest in the animal kingdom. This gives them more power. As previously stated, crocodiles have a relatively light tan, whereas alligators are normally blackish grey or dark. This color variation is determined by where each swim. And since alligators prefer freshwater, algae that grow there make them greener, while tannic acid from overhanging trees makes them appear darker.
Alligators and crocodiles can move fast on land, but that is limited to only short bursts. They can also sprint or gallop though this is only when they are threatened. Crocodiles can achieve a maximum speed of 9mph on land, while alligators can get to 11mph. When underwater, alligators and crocodiles are very fast and agile. This can be attributed to their strong and long tails that help them swim faster. Alligators are faster and can reach a maximum speed of 20mph, while crocodiles can get to 9mph.
Crocodiles tend to be more dangerous to humans and other animals. The most dangerous is the Nile crocodile, which kills thousands of people in Africa. The Australian saltwater crocodile tends to be aggressive when humans are around, but its limited encounters and interaction with human beings make it less dangerous. Although alligators are dangerous, they generally tend to be less aggressive when compared to crocodiles. Most of the time, alligators will escape from human beings and other threats. They only attack when they are unexpectedly provoked, disturbed, or defending their young ones. But though alligator’s natively fear humans, they can lose this fear due to regular contact; therefore, unless you are in a controlled situation such as a park, never attempt to feed. They can also mistake pet dogs and children for prey, so it is best to keep off their territory.
There you have it; let’s hope that you can see the difference between alligators and crocodiles when you see one of the species next and teach your kids to behave responsibly around.