Difference between alligator and crocodiles

1. Geographical Distribution:

  • Alligators: Primarily found in the United States and China. The American alligator is the most well-known species.
  • Crocodiles: Have a more widespread distribution, inhabiting various continents, including Africa, Australia, Asia, and the Americas.

2. Habitat Preferences:

  • Alligators: Prefer freshwater environments such as swamps, lakes, and rivers.
  • Crocodiles: Tend to inhabit a broader range of habitats, including freshwater and saltwater areas like rivers, estuaries, and coastal regions.

3. Snout Shape:

  • Alligators: Possess a broad, U-shaped snout.
  • Crocodiles: Have a more pointed, V-shaped snout.

4. Tooth Visibility:

  • Alligators: When the mouth is closed, only the upper teeth are visible.
  • Crocodiles: Both upper and lower teeth are visible even when the mouth is closed.

5. Behavior Towards Humans:

  • Alligators: Generally exhibit a shy and less aggressive behavior towards humans.
  • Crocodiles: Can be more aggressive and are known to pose a higher risk to humans.

6. Salt Glands:

  • Alligators: Lack specialized salt glands, so they prefer freshwater habitats.
  • Crocodiles: Have salt glands that allow them to survive in saltwater environments, making them more adaptable to a range of habitats.

7. Coloration:

  • Alligators: Typically have a darker coloration, appearing blackish or dark gray.
  • Crocodiles: Often display a lighter coloration, with shades of olive green and brown.

8. Size:

  • Alligators: Generally smaller than crocodiles. Adult alligators usually range from 10 to 15 feet in length.
  • Crocodiles: Can grow larger, with some species exceeding 20 feet in length.

Understanding these distinctions can help you identify whether you're observing an alligator or a crocodile in various environments. While both are remarkable creatures with ancient lineage, their unique features contribute to their adaptability and survival in diverse ecosystems.

Alligators vs Crocodiles: Understanding the Differences Between These Powerful Reptiles

Alligators and crocodiles are iconic aquatic reptiles that instill fear and awe. Often confused for one another, these two types of crocodilians share similarities but are quite distinct in their biology, habitat, behavior, and more.

  • The Distinct Physical Attributes of Each Species
  • Differences in Habitats and Geographic Ranges
  • Variations in Temperament and Behavior
  • Hunting and Prey Capture Techniques
  • Reproduction and Nesting
  • Conservation Status and Population Numbers
  • Evolutionary History and Taxonomy
  • Crocognath Comparisons
  • Roles in Culture, Media, and History
  • And Much More!

By the end of this deep dive overview, you will have a strong understanding of what truly sets alligators and crocodiles apart as the most feared and revered reptiles on Earth. Let's get started!

Key Physical Differences

Alligators and crocodiles overlap in physical appearance but have distinct defining characteristics:

Snout Shape

  • Alligators have a wide, U-shaped snout, most notably visible from above.
  • Crocodiles have a pointed, narrow, V-shaped snout when viewed from the top.

This difference in snout shape correlates to variation in diet between the species. The wider snout of alligators allows them to supplement their diet with hard-shelled turtles, crustaceans, and mollusks which crocodiles rarely consume.

Tooth Exposure

  • Crocodiles have upper and lower teeth exposed when their mouth is shut.
  • An alligator's upper jaw is wider than the lower, hiding teeth when closed.

The visible tooth display of crocodiles even with a closed mouth gives them a more threatening appearance all the time.

Location of Nostrils

  • An alligator's nostrils are located high on their snout.
  • Crocodile nostrils are positioned at the very tip of their snout.

The high placement of alligator nostrils allows breathing while most of their body remains submerged. Crocodile nostril placement restricts submerged breathing.

Colors and Patterning

  • Alligators are typically darker black or olive brown in color with muted yellow undertones.
  • Crocodiles exhibit lighter tan, olive, or grey coloration with a whiter underside.

When crossed with sunlight, an alligator's skin takes on a darker, almost black appearance while crocodiles show more lighter green and tan tones.

Leg Plating

  • Alligator legs have armor-like skin plating on the entire upper side.
  • Crocodiles only have plating on the outer sides of legs; the back side is soft-skinned.

The full plating on an alligator's legs provides better protection when moving on land through brush and vegetation.

These prominent physical differences provide a clear visual indicator to distinguish alligators and crocodiles upon first glance. But other differences exist between the two apex reptiles...

Habitat and Geographic Distributions

Alligators and crocodiles inhabit generally distinct geographic regions:


  • Found only in the southeastern United States and China.
  • Occupy freshwater habitats like marshes, wetlands, rivers, and swamps.
  • Live in areas with warmer climates.
  • Cannot tolerate saltwater/marine environments.

The American alligator is found in states surrounding the Gulf of Mexico while the Chinese alligator inhabits the lower Yangtze River valley.


  • Found across North Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.
  • Tolerate both freshwater and ocean saltwater habitats.
  • Some species can live in marine environments like coastal bays and estuaries.
  • Thrive in tropical and subtropical climates near the equator.

The extensive global distribution of multiple crocodile species contrasts with the much more concentrated range of alligators. Environment at tolerance also varies between the species.

Hunting and Prey Capture

As apex predators, alligators and crocodiles showcase different hunting behavior:

Alligator Hunting

  • Relies heavily on ambush technique; bites then drags prey underwater.
  • Ambush from along pathways or in water concealed by vegetation.
  • Powerful bite force for crushing prey, shakes victims violently.
  • Primarily eat fish, snails, turtles, small mammals, waterfowl, deer, and cattle.
  • Unable to open jaws when biting due to fused lower jawbones.
  • Distinguished death roll maneuver to rip off prey chunks.

Alligators are opportunistic hunters who apply brutal force to surprise attack victims from hiding and overpower them.

Crocodile Hunting

  • Actively pursue prey in water and some species chase prey on land.
  • Specialized technique to launch out of water for land attacks.
  • Quick striking combined with vice-like grip isolates and drowns victims.
  • Able to open lower jawbones for shifting bite positions.
  • Preferred prey are fish, birds, zebras, warthogs, wildebeest, primates, deer.
  • Some species blow bubbles to create drifting lures to attract fish.

In contrast to alligators, some crocodile species apply more diverse and complex hunting techniques both in water and on land.


Alligators and crocodiles display some reproductive variations:

Alligator Mating & Nesting

  • No distinct breeding season; nesting occurs April-June.
  • Male emits loud infrasonic bellows to attract mates.
  • Courting pairs rub snouts and blow bubbles together.
  • Female digs nest mound of vegetation to deposit eggs.
  • Lays 20 to 50 eggs and incubates for 65 days.
  • Mother fiercely guards hatchlings for up to a year.

Crocodile Mating & Nesting

  • Distinct seasonal breeding usually in late spring.
  • Males patrol and defend mating territories.
  • Unique courtship routines - pairs may blow bubbles, slap tails, rub jaws.
  • Nest is mound or burrow on riverbanks dug by female.
  • Lays 10 to 60 eggs and incubates for 80-100 days.
  • New hatchlings often fall prey to birds, snakes, and fish.

Alligators have longer parental care after hatching whereas crocodile hatchlings are more vulnerable surviving independently.

Evolutionary History

Alligators and crocodiles are distant relatives:

  • Crocodiles are part of a reptile group called crocodilians that emerged 240 million years ago.
  • Alligators descend from a crocodilian offshoot from the late Cretaceous 80 million years ago.
  • Ancient ancestral species like Deinosuchus were true giants up to 40 feet long!
  • Alligators survived the mass extinction wiping out dinosaurs 66 million years ago.
  • American alligators are closely related to Chinese alligators.
  • There are 14 modern crocodile species and just 2 alligator species.

Despite some similarities, alligators represent a much more recent specialized crocodilian lineage compared to ancient crocodiles.

Taxonomy & Classification

In taxonomy, alligators and crocodiles belong to distinct scientific families:


  • Part of Family Alligatoridae.
  • Genus Alligator contains the American alligator and Chinese alligator.
  • Distinguished from crocodiles in 1807.


  • Classified under Family Crocodylidae.
  • Contains 14 species in multiple genera like Crocodylus, Osteolaemus, and Mecistops.
  • True crocodiles are in the Crocodylus genus.

Herpetology and zoology classify alligators and crocodiles separately based on physical, geographic, and behavioral variances between the two types of crocodilians.

Conservation Status

Both alligators and some crocodile species faced endangerment:


  • American alligator was hunted and threatened with extinction in the 1900s.
  • Conservation efforts boosted population from near extinction.
  • No longer endangered but still regulated after recovery.
  • China has about 300 remaining Chinese alligators after habitat loss.


  • Half of all crocodile species are listed as critically endangered or vulnerable.
  • Overhunting and habitat destruction caused declines.
  • American crocodile and gharial crocodile populations remain fragile.
  • Nile crocodile stable as apex predator across Africa.
  • Saltwater crocodiles rebounded after hunting regulations passed in Australia.

Targeted conservation initiatives continue to be crucial for stabilizing populations of alligators, crocodiles, and other crocodilians worldwide.

Roles in Culture and Media

Alligators and crocodiles are deeply embedded in culture:

  • Ancient Egyptian god Sobek depicted with a crocodile head.
  • Aztec earth god Cipactli was part crocodile.
  • Crocodiles appear on various African flags and coats of arms.
  • Alligators feature in Native American creation stories.
  • Crocodile hunter Steve Irwin brought both species to TV screens.
  • Alligators and crocs appear as monsters in horror films.
  • Used as mascots for products, sports teams, universities, and the military.
  • Both animals inspire fear but also respect for their power, ferocity, and ancient lineages.

From mascots to mythical deities, crocodilians continue to fascinate humanity across cultures worldwide.

Key Similarities Between Species

Despite their differences, alligators and crocodiles share many common traits as large aquatic reptiles:

  • Armored scaly skin and protective osteoderm ridges.
  • Long powerful tails for propelling through water.
  • Webbed hind feet but unwebbed front feet.
  • Able to regulate salt glands for osmoregulation.
  • Eyes and nostrils atop the head for stealthy breathing and surveying while submerged.
  • Hearing adapted for detecting water vibrations.
  • Cold-blooded metabolism supported by external heat sources for temperature regulation.
  • Male sexual dimorphism - larger size than females.
  • Mothers carefully carry hatchlings to water in their jaws.
  • Keen senses of sight, smell, and touch.
  • A dual-chambered heart with systematic and pulmonary components.
  • Can live up to 50-70 years.
  • Are apex predators high on food chains.
  • Provide environmental services by carrion removal and controlling prey populations.

Crocodilians remain living relics of prehistory exhibiting incredible power, adaptation, and elusive beauty. Understanding the subtle differences between alligator and crocodile species enhances appreciation of their diversity. While these iconic ambush hunters still strike fear, increased awareness fosters coexistence and conservation so future generations can continue to be captivated by crocodilians