10 key differences between crocodiles and alligators

More often than not, people tend to get mixed up between crocodiles and alligators. I don’t blame you, as it can be confusing.

While they both belong to the Crocodilia order, they are members of two quite separate taxonomic families. Besides, alligators DO NOT live in Africa.

The only one of the two you will find in Africa is the Nile crocodile.

Crocodiles and Alligators – Everything You Need to Know

In Africa I’ve encountered Africa’s slumbering in lakes, feeding in rivers, sunbathing on banks, and grabbing wildebeest by the legs. But I’ve never seen an alligator because they don’t live in Africa.

If you are traveling in Africa and see a big scary reptile in the water, it’s a crocodile. But how else do you tell the difference between crocodiles and alligators?

The following highlights the major differences, teaching you all about crocodiles vs alligators. If you like it check out cheetah vs leopard as well.

Hopefully, by the end of the article you’ll be an expert on the subject. 😉

Crocodiles vs Alligators – An Overview

You can barely see an alligator’s lower teeth when its mouth is closed; its lower teeth fit snugly into pits in the upper jaw. In contrast, a crocodile’s lower teeth are always visible.

Alligators have a broad snout, while crocodiles have a thinner snout.

Alligators tend to be grayish black in color, whereas crocodiles have a olive green or brown appearance.

Alligators can only be found in the southeastern United States, in Tamaulipas (Mexico), and in some parts of China. Crocodiles can be found all over the world.

In the wild, alligators tend to run away. While not exactly wallflowers, they certainly prefer their own company.

Some species of crocodiles, on the other hand, have legendary tempers. The salt water crocodile and the Nile crocodile have been known to eat people.

Crocodiles are the only one of the two you will spot in Africa.

1. Family

The alligator, on the one hand, is a member of the Alligatoridae family.

American alligator walking across wetlands

On the other hand, the Nile crocodile is part of the Crocodylidae stream.

Nile crocodile in beautiful early evening light

2. Continent

American alligator walking on a golf course

Both species can be found on the American continent (South Florida), yet the alligator is confined to the United States, Mexico, and China (only a handful are left in the wild in China though).

The crocodile inhabits lakes and rivers of Africa, Asia, America and Australia. Most famously in Africa, crocodiles inhabit the Mara River, waiting for blue wildebeest to cross.

3. Freshwater or Seawater?

Cuban crocodile swimming next to a snorkeler, Jardines de la Reina

One difference worth mentioning is that alligators prefer freshwater, whilst crocodiles can tolerate seawater conditions better. They have special glands to filter out the salt.

Notice however, that both species can survive in either habitat.

4. Snout Shape

Perhaps the easiest way to differentiate the two is to look at the shape of their snouts: a “V” shaped snout for the crocodile, and a “U” shaped snout for the alligator.

5. Head

An alligator’s head is wide and short.

In contrast, a crocodile’s head is relatively thinner and longer.

Nile crocodile with its distinctive long pointed snout

6. Jaw Placement – Crocodiles vs Alligators

A crocodile's fourth tooth placement illustrated

  • Alligator: upper jaw wider than lower part, and the teeth in the lower jaw fit into small cavities in the upper jaw.
  • Crocodile: upper and lower jaws are almost identical in width, hence the teeth in the lower jaw become apparent when the mouth is closed. The enormous fourth tooth, on the lower jaw, is especially visible.

7. Body Colour

Alligators are usually blackish or gray in colour

Crocodiles have an olive green or brown body coloration.

Alligators are darker in colour: blackish or gray is usually the norm.

8. Size

Generally speaking, crocodiles are larger than alligators, yet size will vary from one species to another. Dwarf crocodiles for instance, will barely reach 1 m (3.3 feet).

Crocodiles have an average length of about 4-5 m, yet the largest specimens (e.g. saltwater monsters from Australia), can reach sizes in excess of 7 m (23 feet). These impressive beasts can weigh well over 1200 kg.

Alligators reach lengths of 4 m on average (13 feet) and weigh up to 360 kg. The largest alligator ever recorded was from Florida, and measured 5.3 m (17 feet 5 inches).

9. Behaviour

Nile crocodile vs blue wildebeest in the Mara river

Crocodiles have a tendency to be way more aggressive than their cousins the alligators.

They won’t hesitate to attack when feeling threatened, while alligators are more docile and usually flee when alarmed.

10. Nesting

Nile crocodile hatching, with its head coming out of the egg

For both species, the nesting site is extremely important. If the eggs are not laid in ideal conditions they will simply not hatch!

Here again, the difference is rather striking.

Crocodiles prefer sandy banks or mud to make their nests, whereas alligators search for areas covered in vegetation.

Learn More About Wildlife in Africa and Beyond

Africa Freak is dedicated to Africa and its wildlife.

Check out the site to learn all about different African animals, including how to identify them and how to learn the differences.


What does a hippo sound like?

What are the group names for African animals?

Top ten venomous snakes in Africa.

Or check out our practical guide to going on safari in Africa.

Enjoy, and look out for those crocodiles! 😉

10 thoughts on “10 key differences between crocodiles and alligators”

  1. I think you need to do more research in Liberia (West Africa) because the signs of an alligator are found here. Based on your differences, alligators are found in many rivers in Liberia. You are welcome to visit Liberia and do a proper research.


    Hi Michael! Nice post! Just a comment for you to perhaps update it; in Brazil, we have alligators, not crocodiles. Therefore your statement “yet the alligator is confined to the United States and China” is not accurate.

  3. “You can’t see an alligator’s teeth when its mouth is closed.” Literally your first picture of an alligator shows him with his mouth closed and teeth showing.

  4. Hey I’m in 6th grade. I am doing a compare and contrast essay, so I found this website to give me some information.

    Thanks, 🙂

    Cameron Heath

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