American Alligator, American Crocodile & Common Caiman Facts | Florida Wildlife Guide
These three species can be difficult to tell apart. Fortunately, if you come across one in the wild, it doesn’t really matter – you should try not to get too close to any of them.
There are approximately 200,000 American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) roaming the waterways of the Everglades. You can differentiate them from crocodiles by the broad, rounded snout and the lack of teeth protruding from the lower jaw when their mouth is closed. Alligators tend to be darker than crocodiles (gray to black) with a light underside, and younger alligators will have light bands on their sides for camouflage. They can grow to over 15 feet long and 1,000 pounds.
The American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) has a much smaller population, with likely fewer than 2,000 spread throughout their range in southern Florida. They are lighter in color than alligators, and their snouts are narrow with a single tooth jutting up from their lower jaw when their mouths are closed. They can reach 20 feet in length and weigh over 1,000 pounds, but most are closer to 10 – 13 feet long.
Common caimans (Caiman crocodilus) are the smallest of the three crocodilian species found in Florida, rarely growing more than 5 feet in length and rarely exceeding 100 pounds. They became established in Florida after it became illegal to sell the two native species as pets. Caimans were imported from Central America to sell as “dwarf alligators.” To nobody’s great surprise, many of these “pets” were released into the wild after people realized that a. Crocodile species are not cuddly, and b. They don’t stay 6” long forever.
The climate in Florida limits the spread of the non-native caiman. The reason the American alligator is so much more abundant than the crocodile or caiman is that they are the most cold-tolerant of any crocodilian species in the world. The American crocodile and caiman can’t survive in the northern reaches of the alligator’s range.
Despite their fearsome and “cold” reputation, crocodiles and alligators are some of the best animal parents on the planet. They begin by constantly monitoring the temperature in the nest where they lay their eggs. The gender of the babies is determined by the temperature of incubation, and a change of just a few degrees up or down could mean an entire clutch could come out as a single gender. Even before the eggs hatch, the babies make a sound that brings the mother running and possibly synchronizes the births of the young. The mother (and sometimes even the father) then takes them in her mouth and transfers them to the nearest body of water.
The parents continue raising and protecting their young for a few months up to a year after birth.
Alligators and crocodiles are apex predators – the top of the food chain. No species hunts them except humans. The main threat to their survival is the rapid draining and loss of wetland habitats around the world.