The American crocodile is a large crocodilian in the family Crocodylidae (the “true crocodile” family). It is found in coastal and aquatic habitats in the warmer waters of North, Central and South America, as well as on Caribbean islands. The species shares part of its range with the similarly-sized American alligator.
Like other crocodilians, the American crocodile is an ambush predator. Rather than actively pursuing its prey, it lurks under the water waiting for unsuspecting animals to come within reach of its powerful jaws.
In many parts of its range the American crocodile was once hunted almost to extinction for both its meat and its hide. The species is now protected under national and international laws. Although no longer endangered, the American crocodile is still rated as “Vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Read on for more American crocodile facts…
- American Crocodile Facts At A Glance
- What Does an American Crocodile Look Like?
- Differences between the American Crocodile and American alligator
- American Crocodile Family And Related Animals
- Crocodile Evolution: An Amazing Fact!
- American Crocodile Habitat
- Where Is The American Crocodile Found?
- Ecology and Behavior
- How Fast Can An American Crocodile Run?
- American Crocodile Predators
- Is The American Crocodile Endangered?
American Crocodile Facts At A Glance
- Scientific name: Crocodylus acutus
- Type of Animal: Reptile in the order Crocodilia. This group includes the crocodiles (14 species), the alligators and caimans (8 species) and the gharials (2 species).
- Animal Family: Crocodylidae (the “true” crocodiles).
- Where Found: Areas of North, Central and South America, including some Caribbean islands.
- Length: Adult males have an average length of between 9 ft 6 in and 13 ft 5 in (2.9 to 4.1 m), although larger individuals have been recorded at 6 m (20 ft). Adult females are smaller, having an average length of between 8 ft 2 in and 9 ft 10 in (2.5 to 3 m).
- Weight: Male American crocodiles have an average weight of between 882 and 1102 lbs. (400 to 500 kg), although very large individuals may weigh as much as 2,000lbs (907kg). Females are generally lighter and have an average weight of around 380 lb. (170 kg).
- Conservation Status: Vulnerable
What Does an American Crocodile Look Like?
The American crocodile is a large, muddy-grey colored reptile with a lizard-shaped body and short, powerful legs. Its long tail is used as a paddle when swimming. As with other crocodilians, its body is covered with scaly skin and has rows of scutes (small, bony plates) running along the length of its back and tail. The head is flat and triangular in shape.
The American crocodile’s eyes, nostrils and ears are all positioned on the top of the skull. This means that the crocodile is still able to breathe, see and hear while it lies hidden under the water. The species has very strong jaws and sharp, conical teeth that can be seen even when the mouth is closed.
American crocodiles have special glands under their tongues that enable them to secrete excess salt from their bodies. This enables them to live in salt-water habitats without suffering the toxic effects of ingesting salt.
Differences between the American Crocodile and American alligator
It is easy to confuse the American Crocodile and American alligator, especially in southern Florida, USA, where both species occur.
In the early 1800s, explorers and hunters in Florida misidentified the American crocodile and named it the “sharp-snout alligator”, a name that remained for almost a century. There are some differences between the species, however, that are diagnostic:
- The American crocodile has a pointed, V-shaped snout, whereas the American alligator has a rounded, U-shaped snout.
- In both species, some of the upper teeth may be visible when the jaws are shut, but in American crocodiles the lower teeth can also be seen; the crocodile’s smile is just way “toothier”.
- The American Crocodile is generally a paler color than the American alligator. Its skin tends to be a mid-gray, unlike that of the alligator, which is usually darker, verging on black.
- The two species prefer different habitats. Whereas crocodiles prefer salty to brackish conditions, alligators live in fresh water. Their ranges only overlap in southern Florida, USA.
American Crocodile Family And Related Animals
The American crocodile belongs to the family Crocodylidae, which includes all “true” crocodiles, including species such as the Nile crocodile and the saltwater crocodile.
The family Crocodylidae first appeared in the Cenozoic Period, around 120 million years ago. At this time, many different species of crocodiles began to evolve, and they are found in fossil records worldwide.
The American crocodile is thought to have evolved from one such species, Crocodylus checchiai, that has been identified from fossils discovered in Africa.
Today, fourteen species of crocodiles are recognized. The American crocodile’s closest relatives are the Orinoco, Morelet’s, and Cuban crocodiles. The species is more closely related to the two species of gharial than it is to alligators and caimans.
The American crocodile belongs to the order Crocodilia. As well as the world’s crocodiles, this group includes the alligators, caimans and gharials.
Crocodilians are ancient animals that first appeared during the late Cretaceous Period, around 95 million years ago. Their ancestors, the crocodile-like archosaurs known as crocodylomorphs, are even older, having first appeared around 235 million years ago, during the Triassic Period.
Over the vast expanse of time stretching from the Cretaceous Period to the present, crocodilians have changed relatively little. The appearance and behavior of modern crocodilians such as the American crocodile are very similar to those of their prehistoric ancestors.
Crocodile Evolution: An Amazing Fact!
The archosaurs, a group of reptiles that appeared during the Triassic Period some 250 million years ago, split into two main branches: Pseudosuchia and Avemetatarsalia.
The avemetatarsalians were the ancestors of dinosaurs and birds, whereas the pseudosuchians were the ancestors of today’s crocodilians.
Amazingly, because both crocodilians and birds are descended from archosaurs, crocodiles are more closely related to birds than they are to other reptiles such as snakes or turtles!
American Crocodile Habitat
American crocodiles are aquatic and only occur near water. They favor slightly saline (salty) conditions, such as those found in estuaries, mangrove swamps, salt lakes and river mouths, but may also be found in the sea along the coast. They cannot survive in water below 60°F (16 °C).
The species requires sandy banks, both for basking and for excavating nests.
Where Is The American Crocodile Found?
The American crocodile has the most widespread distribution of the four species of crocodiles found in the Americas.
In South America, it is found in coastal regions of Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela.
It occurs in all countries in Central America, and also extends northwards up the western and southeastern coasts of Mexico. There are also populations on Caribbean islands including Cuba and Jamaica.
In the United States, the American crocodile is found only in southern Florida.
Ecology and Behavior
Like other species of crocodiles, American crocodiles are formidable predators that will hunt almost any type of prey.
Young hatchlings feed mostly on insects, while slightly older individuals prey on frogs, crabs and fish. Adults will eat any aquatic or terrestrial animal they can catch, including fish, snakes, turtles, birds and mammals.
The American crocodile is an ambush predator. It lies in wait for an animal to come within range of its powerful jaws, then pounces, dragging the prey under the water, where it drowns.
Crocodiles, like other reptiles, are ectothermic (cold-blooded). They have no physical means to alter their body temperature, which therefore fluctuates with that of the environment.
This means that when the external temperature is cold, a crocodile’s metabolism is slow. This is why American crocodiles spend much of their time basking in the sun. They cannot digest their food, or carry out many other chemical reactions in their bodies, unless they are warmed by the sun.
How Fast Can An American Crocodile Run?
American crocodiles are supremely adapted to life in the water, but can also move relatively well on land. They have two methods of walking: a low gait, in which they crawl along on their bellies; and a high gait in which the body is raised off the ground.
Using the high gait, the American Crocodile can run at speeds of up to 10 mph (16 km/h) over short distances.
The crocodile is unable to sustain this pace for long. This is due in part to its crocodilian body plan. A crocodilian’s legs extend from the sides of its body, rather than from directly below the body (as in mammals and birds). This means that the croc has to bear its considerable mass on limbs that are bent rather than straight.
In February or March, female crocodiles make nests in sandy or muddy banks near to water. They cover the nests with vegetation in order to keep them warm. A month later, the female will lay a clutch of between 30 and 70 eggs inside the nest, and then guard the nest for the following 80 days while the eggs develop.
The temperature of the nest determines the sex of the hatchling. Warmer temperatures in the center of the nest will produce male hatchlings, while cooler temperatures at the edges will produce females.
Once hatched, the young make their way to the water, sometimes assisted by their mother. They soon begin to hunt small insects and tadpoles.
American Crocodile Predators
Hatchling and juvenile American crocodiles have many different predators, including birds, lizards, crabs, mammals and even other crocodiles; their survival rate is very low.
Adult American crocodiles, on the other hand, are apex predators, with no natural predators of their own.
Is The American Crocodile Endangered?
A 2009 assessment by the IUCN lists the American crocodile as “Vulnerable”. The species is endangered in areas of its range in which hunting and poaching still occur.
It is estimated that there are approximately 2000 American crocodiles in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and South America, and an additional 2000 individuals in Florida, USA.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries American crocodiles were hunted extensively for their hides. The species was hunted almost to extinction before laws were passed to protect it.
American crocodiles are today protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which bans commercial trade of these animals.
Today, due to legal protection and improvements in water quality, the American crocodile’s population is slowly increasing. This has led the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to downgrade the crocodile’s conservation status from endangered to threatened. Threats faced by the species today include habitat loss and road kills.
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