Alligator Vs Crocodile Vs Caiman (What’s The Difference?)

Alligator Vs Crocodile Vs Caiman (What's The Difference)

At first glance alligators, crocodiles and caiman might actually look identical, but if you could (safely) come up closer to study these three creatures you would actually see that despite their similarities, they are quite different from each other.

So, what are the differences between an alligator, a crocodile, and a caiman?

Alligators, crocodiles, and caimans are not part of the same family and subfamily. Crocodiles are much larger, followed by alligators and then caiman. Both caimans and alligators have rounded U-shaped snouts with an overbite, different from the V-shaped snout of crocodiles. Alligators and caimans prefer freshwater, while crocodiles can survive in fresh and saltwater.

If you want to be an expert on identifying alligators, crocodiles, and caimans you probably have to know what makes them so different, and that’s what we’re about to find out!

How to Identify an Alligator?

It’s worth mentioning from the very beginning that there are two different species of alligators alive today, the American and the Chinese alligator.

Both the American and Chinese Alligators are “large reptiles in the Crocodilia order in the genus Alligator of the family Alligatoridae.”

The American alligator is found in the southeast parts of the United States, and there are big populations of gators in Florida and Louisiana living in the freshwater of rivers, lakes, and swamps.

The Chinese alligator also occupies the slow-moving freshwater rivers, lakes, and swamps of China, specifically the six regions in the province of Anhui, and the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

If you happen to visit these places in China then identifying alligators will be easy, because, unlike America which has a population of crocodiles, caimans, and alligators, China only has alligators.

Alligators overall are large creatures, however, the American alligator is much longer, with the male usually growing a little over 11 feet long (3.3 m), compared to the 5 feet long (1.5 m) Chinese male alligators.

Both of these alligator species have very distinct broad and flat snouts that are U-shaped with a distinct overbite. While they have a lighter color underbelly, their skin on top is usually dark grey, black, or olive brown which offers them a better camouflage against the muddy waters they usually occupy.

How to Identify a Crocodile?

Crocodiles belong to the Crocodylidae family of the Crocodylia order and they are the largest reptiles in that order. The Nile Crocodile, the American Crocodile, and the saltwater crocodile of Australia are all part of this order.

Their natural habitat includes the tropics in most of Africa, Asia, East and West Indies, Northern Australia, Central America, as well as northern South America.

If you are somewhere near a saltwater region and you see a large reptile then they are most likely a crocodile because they are the only ones who can live in brackish (slightly salty), water near the coast.

However, they also can live in freshwater regions like lakes, rivers, and wetlands and in this case, you will need to observe their outside characteristics to make sure they are in fact a crocodile.

As I already said they are the largest reptile species, and they can go up to 23 feet (7 m) long and weigh over 2,000 pounds (1,000 kg).

If you can’t identify them by their size then you should be able to do so by looking at their snouts, no matter if they are wide or very narrow they are always pointed with a distinct V-shape. They are also quite big-headed and their jaws close from the top down.

When it comes to coloration younger crocodiles are pale yellow with black stripes and as they mature they usually start to lose the high-contrast markings and coloring, instead their skin becomes a uniform shade of dark brown, grey, or green.

How to Identify a Caiman?

Caimans are also part of the Crocodylia order and they belong to the Alligatoridae family like alligators, however, they branch out into a different subfamily the Caimaninae.

There are six species of caimans, which include the spectacled caiman, Yacare caiman, broad-snouted caiman, smooth-fronted caiman, Cuvier’s dwarf caiman, and the Black caiman.

These reptiles can be found in Central and South America and you are more likely to find them living their best life in south Florida because they cannot tolerate cold temperatures. Caimans also prefer to live in the freshwater of lakes, rivers, and ponds.

Most caimans are quite small in size, and they can go up to 8.8 feet long (2.7 m). However, the black caimans that live in seasonally flooded savannas of the Amazon basin and the freshwater habitats of South America are quite large reaching a maximum length of about 15 feet long (4.5 m).

Apart from their relatively petite size, you can identify caimans by their head. They have broad jaws filled with dagger-shaped teeth and the inside of their mouth tends to be an orange-like color. The snout is rounded, and U-shaped and their nostrils are not separated by a bony plate.

When it comes to their color, most caimans have olive-grey or brown skin with vaguely dark crossbands on the body and tail, while their belly is a cream-to-white color. Those crossbands are more distinct when they’re younger because their skin tends to be lighter.

Black caimans as you can imagine have dark grey to black colored, plated skin and all tend to have golden eyes.

Alligator Vs Crocodile Vs Caiman Chart

Before we take a deep dive into what makes the alligator, crocodile, and caiman so different, you might want to check this chart!

  Alligator Crocodile Caiman
Taxonomic Differences Order: Crocodylia

Family: Alligatoridae

Subfamily: Alligatorinae

Order: Crocodylia

Family: Crocodyloidae

Order: Crocodylia

Family: Alligatoridae

Subfamily: Caimaninae

Size 10-15 feet long (3 – 4.5 m ) 23 feel long (6.5 m ) 8.8 feet long (2.7 m)
Snout Shape Wide and U-shaped snouts Narrow and V-shaped snouts Wide and U-shaped snouts
Color Dark blackish-grey, black, or olive brown Dark green, slate grey, tan, or brown Olive-grey or brown with vaguely dark crossbands
Speed Running: 11 mph (18 km/h) Running: 11 mph (18 km/h) Running: 11 mph (18 km/h)
Strength (Bite Force) 2,125 PSI 3,700 PSI Unknown/ Cuvier’s Dwarf Caiman – 159 PSI
Lifespan 30-50 years 50-70 years 30-40 years
Natural Habitat Freshwater of southeastern America and China Freshwater and saltwater in Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania Freshwater of South and Central America

What Are The Differences Between an Alligator, Crocodile, and Caiman?

I think it makes sense that alligators, crocodiles, and caimans are often confused with each other, and to be fair the three of them share a lot of visual similarities, after all, they are three of the most giant reptiles.

That doesn’t mean there are no differences between them so let’s explore what makes each of these reptiles stand out on their own!

Taxonomic Differences

The reason why alligators, crocodiles, and caimans are so alike is the fact that the three of them are giant reptiles and they belong to the same order Crocodilia which first appeared 95 million years ago.

As we move further down however we see that alligators and crocodiles do not belong in the same family. The Crocodilia order split, leaving the crocodiles as part of the Crocodyloidea superfamily, and the alligators and caimans as part of the Alligatoroidea superfamily.

The alligators split into the Alligatoroidea order about 80 million years ago if not more. While alligators and caimans share the same family, and they are closer relatives compared to crocodiles caimans belong to the subfamily Caimaninae.

This split between the three animals was probably caused by their migration to different environments, their prey, and their physical needs. In the end, those changes made them so different from one another.

Size

When it comes to size, there’s a clear difference between these three giant reptiles.

Crocodiles are the largest of the three, and the largest crocodile species is the saltwater crocodile which can reach a maximum length of almost 23 feet (7 m) and weigh 2,205 pounds (1,000 kg).

There’s also a large difference between the American alligator and caiman, the first being much larger at 10 to 15 feet (3 – 4.5 m) in length and 1,000 pounds (453.5 kg) heavy.

Caimans on the other hand usually get as long as 4 feet to 6.9 feet (1.2-2.1 m) with the spectacles caiman maybe reaching 8.8 feet (2.7 m). The black caiman is usually the biggest of its kind and can attain a maximum length of about 15 feet (4.5 m) and they weigh up to 881.8 pounds to 1,322 pounds (400 to 600 kg).

Obviously, it’s highly unlikely that you will find alligators, crocodiles, and caimans chilling in the same group, but even if you did you might have a difficult time discerning between the three of them because size also has a lot to do with age.

For example, a mature caiman, especially a black caiman can appear much larger than a young alligator, and a mature alligator might appear larger than a young crocodile.

So, whether up close or from pictures you will have to rely on other characteristics, aside from size to know whether you’re looking at a crocodile, alligator, or caiman.

Skull and Snout Shape

One of those characteristics that you can rely on is the shape of the skull and specifically the snout. I’ve already described the skulls of the crocodile, alligator, and caiman on an individual level, so I think that only by comparing them will we actually notice the actual difference.

No matter what type of crocodile we’re talking about they all have the same V-shaped snout and their triangular shape is quite different compared to the U-shaped snouts of caimans and alligators.

Alligators also have a wider snout, while caimans have a larger top jaw and they also lack a septum, the bony partition that separates the snouts. Additionally, alligators have an overbite, caimans less so.

I must admit that I couldn’t actually understand this overbite difference until I noticed their teeth. Both the top and bottom teeth of the crocodile are visible when their mouth is closed, while you can only see the top teeth of alligators and caimans.

If you take a moment to observe the teeth themselves then you will also notice that caimans and crocodiles have much pointier, sharper teeth like daggers, compared to the more rounded alligator teeth.

Eyes are just another thing that you may find different between the three. Alligators have smaller eyes that are set into their heads compared to caimans that have bigger and high-set eyes.

While alligators have a blind spot in the front and center, crocodiles can actually slide their eyes from a forward-facing position to a sideways-facing position. But hopefully, you will never be close enough to a crocodile to experience their gaze, no matter from which side they’ll be looking at you!

Color

At first, you might not see extreme differences between crocodiles, alligators, and caiman when it comes to skin color and texture, but a closer look will reveal that they are not so alike.

Crocodiles, for example, are usually tan or brown, slate grey with possible speckled patterns to match the color of their environments and help disguise themselves.

Compared to alligators crocodiles are lighter in color. Alligators can be olive brown, grey, or nearly black with dark stripes on their tails, that appear bright yellow when they are younger.

Crocodiles have very vascularized osteoderms, which are basically skin and bone, these plate-shaped scales make their skin appear thick and leathery.

Caimans also possess osteoderms, but they are more heavily armored, that’s why their skin looks and is rougher. Compared to caimans alligators have softer skin despite also having osteoderms.

As for color, the black caimans are usually dark grey or black, while the rest of the caiman species can come in olive, grey, and brown colors.

The three of these reptiles have lighter bellies, but with caimans and alligators, the underside is usually creamy, while alligators can have white to yellow bellies.

Speed

I think it’s easy to assume that alligators, and especially crocodiles are slow because of their size, but they are actually quite fast.

Unlike alligators and caimans that trot on land, crocodiles gallop or bound, which helps them make longer strides.

However, veterinary scientists found that “no matter what their size, almost every species studied was able to reach nearly 18 kilometers per hour (11 mph), whether it be through trotting, galloping or bounding.”

To understand their speed you have to compare it to the speed of the average person which is 5.9 mph (9.5 km/h) for a man and 5.0 mph (8 km/h) for a woman.

Now when it comes to their swimming speed there are different numbers that you can find online, but I’m not sure they can be entirely trusted. In general, the speed of an alligator and a caiman are allegedly 19.9 mph (32km/h), and of the crocodile 15-22 mph (24-35 km/h)

Behavior

Despite their differences, crocodiles, alligators, and caimans do share similar behaviors. Like most reptiles, they dig burrows to brumate during the cold seasons and sleep. They also enjoy basking in the sun but borrows help them avoid the extreme cold of winter and heat of summer.

Female crocodiles also use these borrows as a nest, while alligators keep their nests well above land and water surfaces next to their gator holes where they sleep or brumate. Caiman nests on the other hand are mounds of earth, leaves, and sticks, and once the eggs hatch, the female moves her babies to a shallow pool of water.

Speaking of nests, during the courtship period the males will bellow, they will swim together with the female, blow bubbles, touch snouts, rub each other’s backs and slap the water with their jaws and lift their tails high, causing vibrations through the water.

In this video, you can hear and see the incredible mating call of alligators, but their bellowing is not so different compared to crocs and caimans.

During the mating period, crocodiles and alligators will mate underwater when the courtship period is over while caimans will do it in shallow waters.

When it comes to their hunting behavior the three of these reptiles prefer to do it at night, and that’s when they are usually most active. They can hunt their prey underwater, and on land, and they also tend to attack their prey as it approaches the shore.

Diet

The environment and the size of each reptile dictate what their prey looks like. For example, caimans feed mostly on small-sized animals, whether that’s fish, birds, or other mammals.

Alligators on the other hand are larger than caimans and so they usually hunt larger fish, other large mammals, and turtles.

By this logic, you are right to expect crocodiles to feed on even larger animals. Their list includes sharks, buffaloes, zebras, small hippos and great apes, even other crocs. Nile and saltwater crocodiles are also known for attacking and killing humans.

Aggression

As I already mentioned crocs are known for their aggressive behavior towards humans. Saltwater and Nile crocodiles are smart but they are believed to be the most aggressive crocodile species and not just toward humans but towards their own kind.

Alligators on the other hand don’t share the same levels of aggression. A 2005 study states that “Alligators are not generally aggressive toward humans, but aberrant behavior may occur.”

According to the data, larger alligators are more likely to bite, and female alligators can be more hostile because they are protecting their nests. Additionally, alligators that have been fed by other humans, lose their fear and are more likely to approach humans in the future and that can be really dangerous.

Since most caiman species are quite small they don’t pose a huge threat to humans, however, the black caiman is reportedly more aggressive.

Strength

It’s difficult to measure a crocodile’s physical strength, or any of the competing reptiles in this article because you can’t simply wrestle with them.

We can assume that crocodiles are stronger physically because they are much larger. In a fight between an alligator and a caiman, alligators are also most likely to have the upper hand.

However, the best way to measure the strength of these giant reptiles is to compare the strength of their bite force, after all, the jaw is their most powerful weapon.

When it comes to bite force the crocodile wins again! the saltwater crocodile has a bite force of 3,700 PSI and the Nile crocodile has a bite force of 5,000 PSI!

Alligators are also not doing too bad, since their bite force can reach up to 2125 PSI. Caimans are also strong in that regard, especially if we’re talking about the black caiman, but there isn’t enough data to support a number.

Guinness world records do mention the weakest bite force among crocodilians, and that title goes to the Cuvier’s dwarf caiman with a bite force of 150 PSI.

Lifespan

Crocodile species can have an average lifespan of 30 to 40 years, and it’s not easy to predict how long crocodile species are capable of living because of the dangers they face in their environment.

Crocodiles being the largest of their species can live much longer, with an average of 60-70 years maybe even 80, if they are living in captivity and treated well.

Alligators and caimans have shorter lifespans between 30 and 60 years, with caimans usually dying sooner than alligators.

Natural Habitat

While crocodiles, alligators, and caimans share their love for lakes, slow-moving rivers, swamps, and water bodies of fresh water, they don’t actually live close to each other for the most part.

Chinese alligators are native to China, and there are no caimans or alligators living with them. The Nile is the home of the Nile alligator, similarly, there are no alligators or caimans native to Australia where the saltwater alligator resides.

These species can be found in the same country, and that’s America, but even there these predators don’t necessarily live together.

Alligators and caimans for example are found in different geographical locations because caimans aren’t adapted to cooler temperatures, they are a tropical species.

I also need to point out that alligators and caimans lack the salt-removing gland that crocodiles have and it allows them to live in brackish waters.

The only place in the world where you can actually find alligators and crocodiles coexisting is the Everglades National Park in the US.

Closing Thoughts

Despite the striking similarities between crocodiles, alligators, and caimans, you will find that there are a lot of things that set them apart, from the shape of their snout, and their overall size to their natural habitat.

It’s highly unlikely that you will find alligators, crocodiles, and caimans swimming together or basking in the sun, but if you ever did I’m sure that after reading this article you would be able to differentiate between the three!