The Chinese Alligator—One Of The World's Two Alligator Species. Photo:U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Facts About Alligators

Alligators belong to the crocodilian family—an ancient line of aquatic reptiles that were on the earth at the same time as the dinosaurs. Today, many different species of crocodilians live in the world’s tropical and subtropical regions; elsewhere on this site you will will find more information on rainforest alligators and crocodiles.

However, of all the many species of crocodilians, only two are alligators; the rest are crocodiles, caimans, and gharials. Differences between alligators and the other crocodilians include the fact that alligators have darker skins and wider, more U-shaped mouths than the other species. In addition, unlike crocodiles, an alligator’s teeth are not visible when its mouth is closed.

It is interesting to note that the two alligator species—the American alligator and the Chinese alligator—live on opposite sides of the world. Both species have had their brushes with extinction. The American alligator, which lives only in the southeastern United States, almost went extinct in the 1960’s, but was brought back from the brink by strong conservation measures, and now is plentiful again.

The Chinese alligator, on the other hand, is still very rare. It was extinct in the wild until recently, when some captive-bred specimens were released on Chongming Island near the mouth of the Yangtze River. Those released alligators recently began breeding on other own.

In both cases of near extinction, over-hunting by humans was the main cause. In the U.S., alligators were exploited for their skins, which are used to make shoes, belts, and other leather goods. In China, not only were alligator skins in demand, but the alligators were also eaten.

More alligator facts: Alligators grow to a weight of around 800 pounds (360 kilos), and reach a length of around 14 feet (4 meters). The English word “alligator” actually comes from a name that early Spanish explorers gave to this creature: “El lagarto,” which means, “the lizard.”

Alligators feed on a variety of other mammals, birds, and reptiles, including turtles. They will eat almost any other creature that they are able to catch and overpower, either in or near the water.

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