What’s the difference between crocodiles & alligators?

Are there any differences between crocodiles and alligators, or are they just different names for the same thing?

If they’re not the same, how can you tell these animals apart?

Reptilian revelations

On the surface, crocs and gators look pretty much the same — big scary reptiles with sharp teeth, powerful jaws, tough skin, and they both live in/around water. However there are some subtle differences that differentiate them and make them different animals.

While alligators and crocodiles belong to the same reptile orderCrocodylia — there are some characteristics that differentiate the various families and species.


Alligators, in the family Alligatoridae, generally will have wide, U-shaped and rounded snouts. They also tend to be darker in color than their crocodile cousins, prefer fresh water to salt water (though they can live in either), and are generally less aggressive than crocs. An exceptionally large male alligator can reach a weight of 1,000 pounds.


On the other hand, crocodiles (in the family Crocodylidae) have a long, pointed, V-shaped snout. Crocodiles are generally found in salt water, and can be more aggressive than their alligator cousins. The average-size males are 1,000 pounds, but crocs weighing 2,200 pounds aren’t uncommon.

As the San Diego Zoo points out, “With 23 species of crocodilians, though, these general rules don’t always apply — there are exceptions! For examples, mugger crocodiles (Crocodilis palustris) have a broad snout like an alligator, while some subspecies of caiman have a narrow V-shaped snout.”

A quick visual guide to crocodiles and alligators

On crocodiles, their fourth tooth on the lower jaw sticks up over the upper lip, even when the mouth is closed. On alligators, this tooth is covered when the mouth is closed — though if you’re close enough to discern this, you might already be in trouble. 

Either way, they’re both strong and deceptively fast runners — so unless you know what you’re doing, you might want to make your observations from a distance.

These guys are fighters, which is probably why they’re still going strong after about 230 million years on this planet.

Photo from 'The alligator and its allies' by Albert Moore Reese (1915)
Photo from ‘The alligator and its allies’ by Albert Moore Reese (1915)

Quiz time

Can you identify this type of animal? Alligator? Crocodile?

Yacare Caiman - Cano Negro, Costa Rica
Photo by OndrejProsicky/Deposit photos

Actually, that is a trick question, because it’s neither. This is a Caiman, and you can think of it as the croc’s less-famous cousin.

According to the U.S. Geological SurveyCaiman crocodilus is a medium-sized crocodilian that typically reaches a total length of 3.5 to 6 feet.

How are they different from the animals shown above? The snout is not as broad and round as in the American alligator and, unlike that alligator or the American crocodile, the common caiman has a unique bony ridge in front of and between the eyes. They have a dorsal coloration that ranges from greenish-, brownish-, or yellowish-gray with darker crossbands.

The common caiman is indigenous to southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America, including Trinidad and Tobago, as far south as northern Argentina. The guy pictured above was identified as a Yacare Caiman, as seen in Cano Negro, Costa Rica.

Crocodile and alligator photos thanks to the US Fish & Wildlife Service/NPS/National Wildlife Refuge System: American alligator here /Biscayne American Crocodile here.

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