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Can You Tell The Difference Between An Alligator And A Crocodile?
Posted on Tuesday, April 26, 2016 by eNature

A Florida couple recently had a late night encounter with what they thought was an American Crocodile while taking a moon-light kayak trip. 

From the pictures in the media afterwards, they’re fortunate to be around to tell the story.

While the jury is still out on whether what they met that night was an American Crocodile or American Alligator, both species have made remarkable comebacks in United States over the past few decades.  There are now as many as two thousand crocodiles in south Florida and hundreds of thousands of alligators throughout the Gulf Coast and adjoining states.

So now that we have healthy populations of each species, how do you tell the difference between each species if you happen to come across one of these large reptiles while trekking through some wetlands. 

There are a couple of easy ways to tell the difference.

Location:   Alligators are found throughout the Deep South and seem to be expanding their range.  In fact, a large alligator was recently found living in wetlands along the Virginia-North Carolina border.  Crocodiles are restricted to the southernmost parts of Florida in spots such as Everglades National Park.

Shape of the jaw: The quickest way to tell a crocodile from an alligator is to look at its snout. Alligators have a broad “U”-shaped, snout while a crocodile’s looks narrow and longer, with a pointed “V”-shaped appearance.  The shape of an alligator’s snout reflects its diet, designed for applying massive force to crack open the hard shells of turtles and the various invertebrates it enjoys.  Alligators eat lots of softer prey too, but many apparently thrive on turtles and their kin.  A crocodile’s jaw, while very strong, reflects its more varied diet.

Teeth:  An alligator’s upper jaw is wider than its lower jaw and completely overlaps it. This means you’ll see few, if any, of the teeth in the lower jaw when its mouth is closed, just its pointy upper teeth.  A crocodile’s upper jaw and lower jaw are about the same width and teeth in the lower jaw fit between the teeth of the upper jaw when the mouth is closed.  The teeth are said to “interdigitate” and both upper and lower teeth are visible.

Lingual salt glands: Crocodiles are often found in salt water and have specially adapted salivary glands in their mouths that that allow them to excrete the salt that accumulates in their body.  Alligators lack these specialized glands and, while they can tolerate salt water for limited periods, tend to stick to fresh or brackish water habitats.  While these glands may not be so easy to see, they do determine the sort of habitat in which a crocodile or alligator might be encountered. 

The eNature field guide has lots more about the American Crocodile »

The eNature field guide has lots more about the American Alligator »

The Crocodilian Biology Database is a great place for detailed information about the world's 23 crocodile species. »

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