• Carrie Gardner

American Crocodile - They've Been Here Awhile

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

Many people don’t know that the United States has two crocodilians native to our country. The more well known, of course, is the American Alligator. Found in the southeast in the millions, they are easily found in pretty much any freshwater body of water, including even golf water hazards. In the waters around Bay Palms Golf Course at MacDill Air Force lives Elvis. A longtime resident, Elvis loves to sun on the fairway. If golfers should happen to show up, he lifts himself up and casually strolls back to the water, flipping his feet as he goes. He pays no mind to the humans who are filming and taking pictures. Elvis is a 12-foot alligator and the darling of the golf course. Like I said, they can be found everywhere.


American Alligator (left) American Crocodile (right)

American crocodiles, however, are reclusive and are only found in southern Florida. On the east coast, from Fort Worth down to the Keys and up to Sanibel Island. However, they can travel long distances and have shown up in Tampa Bay. And of course, they are in the Everglades. It’s the ONLY place where a crocodile can look at an alligator and say “Later gator”, and the alligator can look back and say “In a while crocodile.” No other place in the world has both an alligator and a crocodile living in the same habitat. Florida is the northernmost point of their range.

Where else can they be found? In Belize, Cayman Islands (may be extinct), Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haití, Hispaniola, Honduras, Jamaica, Margarita (possibly), Martinique (possibly), México, Nicaragua, Panamá, Perú, Trinidad (possibly), and Venezuela. With such an international flair, they also go by many names. So if you’re traveling in these countries and you hear any of these: Cocodrilo Americano, Crocodile d'Amérique, Camán de Aguja, Central American Alligator, Cocodrilo de Río, Crocodile á Museau Pointu, Lagarto Amarillo, Lagarto Real, Llaman Caimán, South American Alligator, and finally, American Saltwater Crocodile. Everywhere, it is known by its binomial Latin name - Crocodylus acutus.

They are one of the largest crocodile species around the size of their distant cousins the saltwater crocodile and the Nile crocodile. Males are larger than females - rarely exceeding 17-feet, but there have been reports of over 20 feet and up to 2000 pounds. Females reach breeding size at between eight to nine feet and a total length of 12.5 feet. Unlike their more aggressive relatives in Australia and Africa, American Crocodiles are reclusive and shy. If startled they will go splashing into the water for protection. Many think that they are attacking at first. Usually, calculating crocodilians slide quietly into the water. That’s when to be worried. If you should happen to come upon an American crocodile with its mouth wide open in the wild (or an alligator) it isn’t threatening you, nor is it just really mad at the world. Opening its mouth helps it to thermoregulate their body temperature.

Hypersaline Lago Enriquillo in the Dominican Republic

American crocodiles can be found in freshwater, brackish (saltwater/freshwater) and saltwater. However, like their distant cousins, the saltwater crocodile, they seem to thrive in brackish or saltwater. They can be found in rivers, lakes, and reservoirs for freshwater habitats, Brackish waters can include coastal habitats (tidal estuaries, coastal lagoons, and mangrove swamps). There are two really interesting populations. The first is at Lago Enriquillo in the Dominican Republic. It is a landlocked hypersaline lake. Crocodiles and other animals have to drink whatever available freshwater they can find or excrete salts and minerals to maintain their water-mineral content internally.

A juvenile at Turkey Point Nuclear Plant

The second interesting population is in Florida. Near Homestead at Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant, Crocodiles, like alligators, crocodiles dine on fish, crabs, turtles, small mammals, birds, other reptiles (including their own young and that of cousin gator), and like alligators, they prefer to eat at night. Why do American crocodiles like to live at a nuclear power plant? Remember that southern Florida is the extreme northern range. They like their temperatures warmer, for the most part. Turkey Point has 168 miles of interconnected cooling canals where the temperperatures are 100-104 degrees. But that's not all. Since 1978, Florida Power and Light started working with the crocodiles. The Plant has brought in specialists to measure and tag the babies, reintroduce them either back in the water at different locations, to ensure a better chance of survival or into wildlife refuges. Their involvement raised the American crocodile's status from endangered to threatened.

Contrary to popular opinions, alligators are not keeping the crocodiles from moving further north. The climate does that. They have to maintain a certain body temperature in order to live and while alligators can tolerate colder temperatures, crocodiles can’t. At 72°, crocodiles are pretty much helpless and can drown. During the cold winter of 2009-2010, 150 crocodiles were reported to have died, along with many cold-shocked sea turtles and manatees.

Breeding season begins in autumn or early winter. with a long drawn out courtship. They are so romantic! In February or March, females begin to build their nest by starting to build their nest. They are hole-nesters and will dig their nests above the high water line. If there is no place to dig a nest, they will build a mound. They lay around 40 eggs and cover them up. Maternal care of the nest and babies are dependent upon each mother. Some guard the nest, resting in a burrow near the nest, and will assist hatching eggs, assisting them out of the shells after 70 - 80 days of incubation, and carry them to the water, where they continue to offer some protection. Others build the nest and leave, visiting the nest so often and will assist the young. And some just leave. Even if the kids get some protection from mom, they all go their own way within a few days. They are easily preyed on when they’re small. Animals interested will eat them. Even as eggs, they are extremely vulnerable. Even with a protective mommy croc, they can be destroyed by fire ants, flooding, or if their incubation temperature doesn’t stay within the small cone, they won’t develop. Coincidentally, gender is determined by the incubation temperature. Higher temperatures will produce all males, lower temperatures are all female, and in between will be a mixture. It is best to keep the temperature in that middle range so there is not an abundance of one sex and a shortage of the other.

So what is the difference between crocodiles and alligators? I would like to stress that this works with American crocodiles and American alligators ONLY. Alligators are not the only crocodilians to have a “U” shaped snouts.

Alligators: are darker in color, have broad “U” shaped snouts, and have an overbite - when the mouth is closed, you can only see their upper teeth. They are found throughout the state, are more likely to interact with people, and also does the “high walk” more often.

American crocodiles: light grey/greenish in color, have “V” shaped, longer snouts, and when it’s closed, there are teeth on the lower jaw that can be seen when the mouth is closed, giving a more “snaggletoothed” appearance. They can only survive in the extreme southern portion of the state. They are less likely to interact with people and though they can do it, really aren’t that fond of the “high walk”.

Here's a video on telling the crocodiles from alligators, not just the two American species that I found interesting:

American crocodiles are considered threatened (but not endangered!!) in the United States, and vulnerable throughout the rest of their territory. We are blessed to be living alongside these prehistoric, magnificent creatures. Without education though, they will not thrive. There are ways to peacefully coexist. Please don’t (and this goes with alligators too) walk around a body of water or go swimming in places where there are “no swimming” signs or “danger, crocodile (or alligator) signs”. Even if there aren’t any signs, keep your eyes out. They can’t read to know they aren’t supposed to be there. They can’t tell the difference between animals they prey on and dogs, so please don’t walk dogs around water. They stay in the shallows to ambush. Don’t go swimming or walk around water at all between dusk to dawn. That is when they are most active and when they are hunting. If you come across one sunning, just walk away. And the most important thing I can say is DO NOT FEED THEM. If they lose their fear of humans, then they do become dangerous and will approach others for food and possibly attack. This is what the cause is most of the time for “unprovoked attacks."

Again, I have to say that these are magnificent animals that are one of the few animals that has remained relatively unchanged since their ancestors walked beside dinosaurs. They deserve our attention, our protection and our respect.

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