What’s the Difference Between an Alligator and a Crocodile?

These toothy creatures both inhabit Florida and are difficult to tell apart.
Closeup of a crocodile's head
Is this an alligator or crocodile? Read on to find out. Pixabay

Long before snowbirds, spring breakers and Florida Man came to the Sunshine State, there were alligators and crocodiles. They’re both green, live primarily in the water and can scare the flip-flops off you, but do you know the difference between an alligator and a crocodile? It turns out there are more than a few differences.

The shape

The easiest/quickest way to distinguish between the two aquatic menaces is the physical difference. Alligators have a rounded, U-shaped snout; crocodiles have a pointed, V-shaped snout. This is the key difference most people will cite. But it’s not the only one.

The jawlines also are different. Alligators have a wider upper jaw, which keeps their teeth largely hidden. Crocs have upper and lower jaws that are about the same size, which reveals a seemingly toothy grin.

The size of a gator vs. a croc is different as well. Though both are plenty big enough, a gator is usually a bit smaller. An adult alligator is between 10 and 15 feet long and weighs about 500 pounds. An adult croc can reach 17 feet in length and weigh up to 2,200 pounds.

Color-wise, the species are different too. Crocodiles are more olive green in hue. Gators are often black or gray on top.

Their watery homes

Don’t blame Florida for these fierce creatures: Alligators and crocodiles can be found all around the world, though they prefer slow rivers and grasslands – one reason they love the Everglades.

One difference here again: Alligators prefer fresh water; crocodiles prefer saltier water.

In Florida and along the Gulf Coast of the United States – and on the campus of their beloved University of Florida – gators are more prevalent. In Asia, Africa and Australia, crocs are more at home. (You saw “Crocodile Dundee,” right?)

How they’re similar

Both crocs and gators use their tails to help swim. They can each run up to 11 miles per hour on land. Both can hold their breath up to an hour. And both prefer to hunt in the dark.

How to outrun a crocodile or alligator

Both crocs and gators are aggressive and should not be approached. They’re territorial animals who will protect your turf. However, assuming you find yourself in a bad situation, run away as fast as possible in a straight line. Don’t fall for the urban legend that a zigzag escape route is best. The quicker you exit the creature’s territory, the faster he’ll leave you alone.

Some more tidbits

Alligators date back tens of millions of years. The name comes from “el lagarto,” the Spanish term for lizard. Though early records from Spanish explorers are largely devoid of alligator stories, it’s believed they did encounter the creatures during their adventures.

“Gators” are the official mascots of the University of Florida. A Gainesville native named Austin Miller gets the credit for naming the mascot back in 1908 when his family set up a store in town to sell banners and pennants. Miller wanted to find a mascot unused by other colleges but also unique to the state of Florida.

The word crocodile comes from “krokódilos,” the Ancient Greek word for lizard. There’s also a Latin word “crocodrillus.”

You’ve heard the term “crocodile tears,” right? Though the popular phrase refers to an less-than-sincere show of emotion, it turns out crocodiles really do cry. It happens when they’re feasting, studies say, and not from grief.

The phrase “See you later, alligator” comes from a 1950s rock-and-roll song by the same name written and recorded by Bobby Charles. A version by Bill Haley & His Comets became a hit in 1956.

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