With large powerful jaws, sharp teeth, and a massive muscular body, it’s easy to forget that even alligators and crocodiles need a little protection from their environment and any potential predators. Their thick hides are unmistakable, but are they similar to their other reptilian cousins?
Do crocs and gators have scales?
Both alligators and crocodiles do have scales that cover their entire bodies. The scales on their undersides are smoother and more similar to a snake’s, while the scales on their backs are hard bony plates called scutes.
Let’s take a look at the breakdown of the scaly armor that crocodiles and alligators have that makes them such formidable predators within the water and outside of it.
What Are Scutes?
Unlike most reptiles excluding turtles, crocodilians possess a unique type of scale called a scute. Scutes are hard bony plate-like scales embedded underneath the skin and are also known as osteoderms (“osteo” meaning bone, and “derm” meaning skin).
An alligator or crocodile typically has a few scutes just behind the head and the majority in rows all the way down its back. The only exception to this is the estuarine crocodile which lacks scutes behind the head.
The function of a gator or croc’s scutes is multipurpose. They mainly act as protection against any predators looking for an easy meal. The way the scutes are shaped and arranged on a crocodilian’s back allows them to withstand strong external compression, as if from the teeth of a formidable foe such as a shark or a bigger crocodilian.
Additionally, scientific studies have shown that scutes capture solar heat and aid in thermoregulation, and may contribute to a crocodilian’s buoyancy when lurking in the water searching for unsuspecting prey. By studying the way alligators and crocodiles harness the sun’s energy to heat their bodies, some scientists have been able to theorize that the scutes of dinosaurs such as stegosaurs functioned in a similar way to their modern-day descendants.
Overall, the scute is an amazing evolutionary adaptation that has allowed alligators and crocodiles to rule the sunny swamplands they call home with little to no competition.
Do Crocodiles and Alligators Have Skin or Scales?
If you were wondering whether crocodiles and alligators have skin or scales, the answer is yes – they have both.
There are several layers of skin on their back to give the thick leathery appearance and within this skin are the embedded scales known as scutes. Although scutes are bony at the core, their outer structure is made from a protein called keratin, the same thing your fingernails are made from.
Just like snakes and lizards, crocodilians need to go through periodic shedding in order to grow and rid themselves of any unhealthy skin issues. The keratin layer is easily shed while the strong bony plate underneath remains.
On the underside of crocodilians, there are scales similar to that on the belly of a snake – smooth, soft, and not as protective as those on the back.
In alligators and crocodiles, their skin and scales are woven together to form a tough formidable hide. Unlike a fish’s scales which can be separated and removed from the body, a crocodilian’s scales form an integral part of its skin. If a scale was removed, there would be an irreparable hole in the skin of the animal that would leave it vulnerable to infection and/or predation.
Do Crocodiles Have Scales or Scutes?
Crocodiles have both scales and scutes. Technically, scutes are a type of specialized scale. Crocodiles have scutes positioned in rows down their backs to aid with protection from predators and thermoregulation.
Elsewhere, crocodiles possess leathery scales embedded in their skin layer to help them retain internal heat and moisture.
How Are the Scales on an Alligator or Crocodile Arranged?
Crocodilian scales are arranged in rows across the body. Since the scales on the underside are smaller and smoother, there are typically more scales on a gator or croc’s belly.
However, on the back of these reptiles, the hard bony scutes are arranged in a more purposeful way to provide optimal function. The scutes are arranged in rows across the back with a few behind the head to provide extra fortification for the skull.
The scutes on the back are typically largest toward the center and then become smaller as the rows extend out to either side of the crocodilian. This helps provide peak mobility for the crocodile or alligator in the water. With smaller hard scales, there is more flexibility to allow for sharp turns.
Additionally, the larger scales on the center of the back are those most exposed to the sun, even when the crocodilian is sitting in the water. Not only do these scutes help capture solar rays but they also prevent critical water loss but creating a waterproof seal in the crocodile’s skin to keep the water in.
Although both alligators and crocodiles have scutes, their structure and appearance differ between the two animals. Crocodiles tend to have more scattered scutes that protrude more obviously than alligators as shown in this close-up video of an American crocodile:
On the other hand, the alligator’s scutes are more closely knit as you can see in this incredible shot of an alligator in the wild:
Do Crocodiles and Alligators Shed Their Scutes?
Just like all other reptiles, crocodiles and alligators will experience periodic shedding which includes the hard scales on their backs called scutes. However, since scutes are different from typical reptilian scales, the shedding process is also different.
Unlike snakes and smaller reptiles who shed their entire skin at once, crocodiles and alligators will slowly shed individual scales over time. When the scales have become old, broken, or diseased and the new scales begin to form underneath, a crocodilian will rub itself against a rough surface such as a tree to help the dead scales slough off.
Furthermore, when it comes to the scutes, the entire scale does not fall off. Much like the spurs of a snake which have a bony core and keratin outer layer, scutes are structured the same with only the keratin layer being shed during ecdysis.
The bony part of the scute remains intact for the life of the crocodile or alligator unless it has a genetic mutation or becomes physically damaged during the course of its life.
Do Alligators and Crocodiles Have Scutes on Their Tails?
Not only do crocodilians have scutes on their backs and some on their heads but they also have scutes that continue onto their tails.
Since the tail is skinnier than the rest of its body, the scutes are more pronounced and stick out like the spikes on a battlement. However, don’t be fooled by appearances. The scutes aren’t the only source of protection on the tail.
The tails of crocodilians are muscular and extremely powerful. Combined with the bony scutes, one blow from an alligator or crocodile’s tail could prove deadly for an unsuspecting animal.
Although crocodiles and alligators are a part of the reptile family, there are many things that set them apart from their scaly brethren. Most notably, crocodilians have bony plated scutes that act as a protective armor and allow them to claim their spot at the top of the food chain.
Even though turtles also have scutes, crocodiles and alligators have a powerful combination of defensive and offensive adaptations. The kings of the swamplands and springs have very few matches and a big portion of that is simply due to the scales on their backs.