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Alligator or Crocodile

This question is almost as old as these living pieces of history. Do you know how to tell the difference between these aquatic titans?

American crocodile
An American crocodile sits in the water in southern Florida.

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Since most who are reading this do not know me personally, you may be shocked to know that birds were not my first interest in the animal kingdom. In fact, on my wildlife "bucket-list" there is not a bird in the top THREE! So if birds were not my first professional interest, which animals were? Crocodilians.


My first two years out of college were spent working with American alligators and several species of crocodiles at a 'sanctuary' in the southern United States. While I have fond memories, learned much about myself, and gained many skills, the crocodilian world is not one I would enter again without a very different view. Why? Imagine if there existed a documentary called "Gator King" on Netflix, and that documentary followed some characters in this crocodilian world. It may reflect a similarly named documentary made popular by a blonde mulleted Oklahoman. Hey Netflix, do you want to see a world scarier than the big cat world?


The photo below reflects the time spent at this 'sanctuary.' It also reflects the values of much of the crocodilian world. Sensationalism over conservation. Money, fame, and power are often placed above the animal. While that is me in the photo, I strive to be a different person than the one in ankle-deep mud surrounded by alligators.

Zach with an alligator
Zach with an alligator

I tell this story only to add my personal touch to this post. I have a deep appreciation for these toothy beasts, and I take great joy in writing any scaly-minded post!


Now, on to the learning!


 

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Want a guide to reptiles and amphibians of eastern North America? This is our fav!
 

Crocodilians of the World

First, let's define what a crocodilian is. 'Crocodilian' is the term used to describe the Order of these large reptiles. Orders are part of the organization system used by scientists to sort and classify species of organisms based on similarities. This is important for you, the reader, so that you know crocodilian does not just mean crocodile. It refers to crocodiles, alligators, caimans, and gharials.


Okay, enough taxonomy talk.


There are 24 species of crocodilians in the world currently recognized by scientists. There is existing research to indicate that there may be more species in some parts of Africa. However, more study is needed. The currently recognized species are:


Alligators & Caimans

  • American alligator - Alligator mississippiensis

  • Chinese alligator - Alligator sinensis

  • Spectacled caiman - Caiman crocodilus

  • Broad-snouted Caiman - Caiman latirostris

  • Yacare Caiman - Caiman yacare

  • Black Caiman - Melanosuchus niger

  • Cuvier's Dwarf Caiman - Palaeosuchus palpebrosus

  • Schneider's Smooth-fronted Caiman - Palaeosuchus trigonatus


Crocodiles

  • American Crocodile - Crocodylus acutus

  • African Slender-snouted Crocodile - Mecistops cataphractus