Alligators vs. crocodiles is one of the most common reptile-related comparisons out there. These animals seem so similar from afar (and scary) that it’s hard to imagine much of a difference.
But there is.
This guide will go over the main differences between crocodiles and alligators. Some of them are downright fascinating!
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What’s The Difference Between An Alligator And A Crocodile?
“Gators” and “crocs” are two of the fiercest beasts to walk our planet. Apex predators in their respective habitats, there are very few animals that have the sheer power to match these living fossils.
Thanks to their similar appearance and behavior, many use their names interchangeably. However, there are some distinct differences between alligators and crocodiles that set them apart. While they can be subtle at a glance, there are many ways to correctly identify an alligator vs. a crocodile.
Here are some of the most notable differences you can tell these two reptiles apart.
Let’s start with size. Both of these reptile giants belong to the Crocodilia order. However, classification gets pretty complex after that.
Alligators are part of the Alligatordae family. Meanwhile, crocs belong to the Crocodylidae family.
Size can vary between these species. That said, when it comes to alligators vs. crocodiles, crocodiles tend to be considerably larger as a whole.
The biggest species is the saltwater crocodile. It can reach lengths of about 23 feet, weighing more than a ton in some cases! They’re true giants that can do a lot of damage to any creature they consider prey.
Alligators are massive, too. However, they’re noticeably more petite when compared your average croc.
The American alligator is the one that most people will encounter. It can reach lengths of 20 feet at most. But, they rarely get that big, even in captivity.
Females are only eight to ten feet long, weighing 700 pounds. Males get to be around 13 feet long and tip the scales at 1,000 pounds.
American crocodiles are slightly smaller than the average saltwater species. But even still, they are a good four to six feet longer than the American alligator.
Expert Tip: Those differences aren’t super apparent when looking at pictures or videos. But when you do a size comparison in person, there’s no question which one is a crocodile or a gator.
2. Snout Shape
Here’s another surefire way to tell these two animals apart: Look at their snout! It’s one of the most apparent differences between alligators and crocodiles, and should be the first thing you observe when looking at these creatures.
Both are pretty scary and certainly powerful enough to take down prey. However, they have noticeably different outlines that cater to their hunting habits.
The alligator has a broad snout. It’s relatively wide throughout, creating a nice rounded tip. If you look at it from above, you’ll notice that the snout is U-shaped.
Zoologists believe that the broader shape facilitates their preference for crushing objects. Tough targets like turtles are no match for the alligator! They can destroy the shell in one swift bite. They’re a bit more methodical in their hunting approach, which the broad snout allows.
Crocodiles have robust jaws and capable snouts, too. But they are a little different in shape.
Take a look from above or below, and you’ll see that it’s more pointed. It starts broad but tapers down to a narrow tip. The snout is V-shaped, creating a more linear-looking silhouette.
The V-shaped snout is perfect for thrashing and physical destruction as far as hunting goes. Crocs are more aggressive in their hunting tactics, preferring to rip and shred rather than crush (more on this later).
3. Color & Pattern
Coloration isn’t something many pay attention to closely when it comes to differences between crocodiles and alligators. After all, these semi-aquatic animals have pretty similar color patterns.
However, paying attention to both the shade of their skin and its distinct patterns can help you learn more about what it is.
Generally, crocodiles have a lighter and more varied tone. The exact color will depend on where the reptile lives. Most are usually olive green, tan, or light gray. Mottled or speckled coloration is standard for camouflage.
American crocodiles typically have a slate-colored body with yellow or white bellies. The countershading is a unique type of camouflage that helps the creature blend in with the water to prey below.
Saltwater crocodiles tend to be greener, while Nile crocs are browner.
So, what about alligators?
Alligators are dark green. The skin is slick and shiny. In some lighting conditions, they can appear almost black!
Gators living in algae-rich bodies of water may appear slightly greener, but most are dark enough to blend in with the muck of river banks.
Expert Tip: If you ever get close enough, you’ll notice that alligators also have black spots around the jaw. Those aren’t just camouflage patterns; they’re dome receptors. The dome receptors help the gator regulate water pressure and detect vibrations.
Dome receptors are translucent on crocodiles, making them more challenging to see.
4. Bite Force
In the crocodile vs. alligator comparison, many curious reptile lovers want to know which animal has a more powerful bite.
Hopefully, you’ll never be in a situation where you experience a bite firsthand! But if you’re curious, crocodiles have a more powerful bite force.
While their snouts are more pointed, you have to remember that crocs are bigger and heavier. They have a more muscular jaw, resulting in a bite force of roughly 3,700 PSI. For some perspective, most humans use a mere 150 to 200 PSI of bite force when chewing steak!
Expert Tip: Now, crocodiles certainly have the upper hand when it comes to bite force, but that doesn’t mean that the alligator is weak. Gators produce about 2,500 PSI when they bite down!
5. Overall Strength
As a whole, crocodiles tend to be stronger than alligators. The reason for that comes down to sheer size and behavior.
Crocodiles can be several feet bigger than alligators while weighing nearly twice as much. Their sheer muscle mass produces more strength compared to a gator. On top of all that, their bite is more lethal.
Crocs tend to be a little more violent with their prey, too. We’ll go into more detail in a bit, but crocodiles don’t rely on bite force alone during the hunt. They use their muscles to shred flesh and incapacitate animals. As a result, they have to be pretty strong to be where they are on the food chain.
6. Tooth Shape
Another difference between alligators and crocodiles is their teeth and jaws structure.
Crocodiles have a jaw that closes from the top down. As a result, they have visible teeth on both the top and bottom jaws. Look closely, and you’ll notice five distinct teeth that pop out of the mouth. The teeth interlock and produce a jagged appearance.
It almost looks like the reptile is grinning at you, which only adds to their menacing look.
With alligators, only the top row of teeth is visible. That’s because the jaw closes from the bottom up. The entire bottom row of teeth is hidden, as the top jaw creates a slight overbite.
It’s not just the jaw you have to pay attention to when looking at these giants. The shape of the teeth is different, too.
For crocodiles, the teeth are pointed and jagged. The animal thrashes around to destroy prey. As a result, the teeth are sharper.
On the other hand, alligators have cone-shaped teeth. They offer more crushing power to destroy turtles and other tough animals.
Both crocodiles and alligators are fully capable of being aggressive. The two animals are known for doing the “death roll.” It’s a maneuver that incapacitates prey in only a few seconds.
These animals are responsible for human deaths, too. But when you look at the statistics for aggressive behavior, crocodiles are much scarier.
These animals are the embodiment of opportunistic eaters. They will go after anything that moves in their area. It doesn’t matter if it’s a human or a mammal that’s going down for a sip of water. There’s a good chance the croc will make a move and attack.
Hundreds of crocodile attacks are reported every year. Some of the most violent species are saltwater crocs near Australia. Nile crocodiles are known for being pretty aggressive, too.
Alligators can attack as well. However, they’re more likely to flee than become an instigator. Ask anyone who lives near water in Florida, and they probably have stories of coming across alligators without immediately realizing it.
They’re known for being still and quiet enough to miss until the very last second!
Expert Tip: Luckily, most alligators will not attack unless provoked or actively protect eggs. As a whole, gators only account for less than six percent of all crocodilian attacks.
8. Preferred Climate & Temperature
Whether you see crocodiles or alligators in your area largely depends on the climate.
Alligators are much more tolerant of cold temperatures than crocodiles. That’s why they live further north in the United States.
Both animals are cold-blooded and require relatively warm temperatures to thrive. When the temperature dips to uncomfortable levels, the reptiles go dormant. For crocodiles, that dormancy occurs much sooner.
Crocs only tolerate temperatures between 85 and 93 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s not an extensive range to work with, so you rarely see crocodiles in areas that experience even mild winters.
On the other hand, alligators can stand temperatures as low as 79 degrees. The difference might not seem like much, but that extra tolerance allows the gator to move farther north in colder territories.
9. Time On Earth
You’ll hear many zoologists referring to alligators and crocodiles as living fossils. That’s because they’re the closest thing we have to modern-day dinosaurs! Both animals have been on this planet for millions of years, acting as remnants of a turbulent past long gone.
All that said, crocodiles are much older. Their ancestry goes back 200 million years to the Jurassic Period, according to fossil records. The earliest crocodiles were entirely aquatic. They were called “Thalattosuchia.”
The first land crocs were called “Sarcosuchus.” They lived about 110 million years ago and were considerably bigger than modern variants. As we know them today, Crocodiles can be traced back 70 million years.
The earliest ancestors for the alligators are estimated to be about 150 million years ago. Early gators like the “Deinosuchus” and “Mourasuchus” lived during the Cretaceous period.
10. Species Variety
When it comes to species variety, crocodiles come out on top.
Crocodiles belong to the Crocodylidae family. There are roughly 24 recognized species in the family.
Alligators are part of the Alligatordae, which consists of only eight species. However, most of those species are incredibly rare. Only two are commonly encountered in the wild.
There’s more variety with crocodiles. They’re also more widespread.
Where Do Alligators Live?
Alligators inhabit swamplands, rivers, and lakes. They can’t tolerate high salt concentrations, so they tend to stay inland where water flow is pretty modest.
In terms of geography, there are only two countries that have alligators. The most common are in the United States. Called the American Alligator, these creatures live as far north as North Carolina, as far east as Texas, and throughout most parts of Florida.
Alligators also exist in China. They inhabit the Yangtze River valley. Unfortunately, the species is endangered and not as widespread as the American Alligator.
Where Do Crocodiles Live?
Crocodiles are far more prevalent around the world than alligators. While they tolerate a narrower band of temperatures, they live on many continents.
You can find species in the United States, Southeast Asia, Australia, Africa, South America, and more.
Crocodiles usually live in marshes and wetlands. They can generally adapt to salty water. As a result, they often venture into fast-moving streams and rivers closer to the coast.
Do They Ever Share Habitats?
In most parts of the world, alligators and crocodiles do not cohabitate. Their lifestyles are different, and the same goes for their environmental requirements.
Remember, one of the differences between alligators and crocodiles is that alligators can tolerate a broader range of temperatures. However, they can’t live in environments with high levels of saline.
The opposite applies to crocodiles. As a result, they rarely encounter one another.
Expert Tip: However, South Florida is an exception. The southern tip of Florida is the only place you’ll find the American crocodile in the United States.
But even then, their territories are different. They live in the same area, but it’s rare to see them living together.
Alligator vs. Crocodile: Which Would Win In A Fight?
Here’s another question you hear pretty often. With two apex predators stacked against one another, it’s natural to think about who would win in a fight.
So, in a crocodile vs. alligator battle, who would win?
While alligators are certainly formidable opponents, crocodiles are the likely winners should they ever fight. Crocodiles are bigger, stronger, and more capable.
That’s not to say that alligators won’t do damage. They have their merits. But in the animal kingdom, the strongest usually come out on top. And when you look at our comparisons above, crocodiles are the clear winner!
Which Is Faster?
The biggest strength that alligators have to bring to the table is speed. Gators are significantly faster and more agile compared to crocodiles.
Most zoologists would agree that their small size contributes significantly to their speed.
On land, alligators can reach top speeds of 30 miles per hour. In the water, they can swim as fast as 25 MPH.
Gators have webbed feet. Crocodiles lack those webs, which undoubtedly gives alligators the upper hand in the water.
For comparison, crocodiles only reach 20 MPH and 18 MPH, respectively. Furthermore, crocodiles can only run for short distances. Meanwhile, the alligator can go pretty far without breaking a sweat!
The two animals have their strengths. Crocodiles win on pure power alone, but alligators come out on top for speed and agility.
Now that you have the full rundown when it comes to crocodiles vs. alligators, you’ll be able to appreciate each reptile a bit more. The differences between alligators and crocodiles are actually rather significant, with each creature making their own distinct mark on the animal kingdom.
Let us know if you have anything you want to share when it comes to these fascinating reptiles. We always like hearing from our readers!