Alligators, caimans, crocodiles and gavials are powerful predators located at the top of the food chain, alongside of humans, who are also known to hunt them down. Despite the fact they inspire both fear and respect from both preys and humans. They are nonetheless a source of common confusion.
You see, most people tend to ask questions about their identity when observing them at the local zoo or while watching a documentary about these ferocious reptiles. One of the most popular questions asked by people is: "How do you know which one is an alligator, a caiman, a crocodile or a gavial?" This undoubtedly leads to the following question: "What is the difference between all of them?"
Well, it is my job as the editor of the Reptiles and Amphibians to do the necessary research and provide the required information to provide the answers to those questions. Read, learn and enjoy!
While alligators, caimans, crocodiles and gavials all belong to the class or Reptilia as well as the Crocodilia order, there are still numerous differences between each one of these creatures.
Let’s start by discussing observable characteristics about the alligator. This species is known in China and the United States. This reptile is known for his bite, capable of crushing bones. You can observe its broad snout that is shorter than its famous cousins: caimans, crocodiles and gavials. The size of the American alligator, when reaching full maturity can be up to 4 m or 13 feet in length and 360 kg or 800 lb in weight. Its close relative, the Chinese alligator, on the other hand, is smaller, reaching a length up to 2.1 m or 7 feet.
The caiman is native to the Central and South Africa. Although it is a member of the Algatoridae family, it's Caiman genus includes five different species. Compared to his close relative, the alligator, you can observe the following differences between these two reptiles. The caiman does not have a bony septum between the nostrils and its abdomen is covered by overlapping scutes, which gives it an armor look. The caiman also has longer and sharper teeth than the alligator. If you would compare a caiman to an alligator in a zoo or on a documentary, you would notice the agility and smoother and faster movements, similar to a crocodile. The size of the caiman varies depending on its species from 2.2 meters (7.2 feet) up to 5 meters (16.5 feet) in length.
The crocodile has a longer and narrower head compared to the alligator. A crocodile snout is longer and sharper than the alligator snout. The 4th enlarged tooth in crocodile rests in an external notch compared to the alligator, where it is located under the jaw. Hind legs and feet also differ as crocodiles have a jagged fringe and webbed feet compared to alligator where this jagged fringe is absent and their feet are webbed no more than halfway. The crocodile’s habitat is located in the following areas: Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australia. Their size varies between 1 m or 3.3 feet up to 4.85 m or 15.9 feet in length and can weigh as much as 1,200 kg or 2,600 lb.
The gavial, also known as gharial, has a long and narrow snout and a lighter skull than the crocodile or alligator. The skull is also more fragile. The skin on its back is much smoother than its cousins but the double row of scutes (bony plates) on its tail are longer. The size of the gavial can reach up to 6 m or 20 feet in length and 680 kg or 1,500 lb in weigh. Their natural habitat is located in India and Nepal.
As you can see, there are numerous differences that can help someone identify easily an alligator, from a caiman, a crocodile or a gavial. Now that you are aware of these differences, have fun observing these creatures closely and identify each species with expertise.
Here are some resources linked to caimans and gavials.