American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus)

French: Crocodile americain, Crocodile d'Amérique
Spanish: Caiman, Caiman de costa, Caiman aguja, Cocodrilo Americano, Cocodrilo de Río, Lagarto Amarillo, Lagarto Real
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassReptilia
OrderCrocodylia
FamilyCrocodylidae
GenusCrocodylus (1)
SizeAverage length: 3.5 m (2)
Maximum length: 6 m (3)
Weight180 – 450 kg (2)

The American crocodile is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1), and is listed on Appendix I of CITES, except for in Cuba, where it is listed on Appendix II (4).

A fairly large crocodile species, the American crocodile has a stocky body with a long, powerful tail. The short but muscular legs end in sharp claws (2) and the long triangular snout contains 14 to 15 sharp, conical teeth on each side. The large fourth tooth of the lower jaw fits into a pit in the upper jaw, but remains visible (5). The American crocodile is neatly adapted to life in the water. The ears, eyes and nostrils are located on the top of the head so that nearly the whole body can be submerged (5). A fold of skin can close the windpipe to enable the crocodile to open its mouth underwater and breathe through the nostrils (5). The eyes can be covered with a third eyelid to protect them underwater and the ears are covered with a flap of skin (2). The pupils are vertical slits to help with night vision (2) and there is a distinct swelling in front of each eye (3).

Very young American crocodiles are green with dark banding on the back and tail (2) (6). Juveniles are olive green and are no longer banded (6). Adults are dull grey, with a white to yellow belly (2). Compared with other crocodile species, the armour is less prominent. Rows of raised scales contain knobs of bone (5).

The American crocodile is found along the eastern coast of the Pacific Ocean from western Mexico south to Ecuador, and along the western coast of the Atlantic Ocean from Guatemala north to the southern tip of Florida (6). It is present in southern United States, Central America and northern South America (3).

The American crocodile can be found in both freshwater and saltwater habitats, but is most commonly found in tropical wetlands such as mangrove-lined saltwater estuaries and lagoons (6). It constructs long burrows to avoid adverse conditions (3).

Reaching sexual maturity at 2.5 metres, the female American crocodile prepares a nest during the dry season, either in a hole or on a mound of mud or sand (3). After two months of surprisingly gentle courtship, during which the female must reduce the male’s territorial aggression by making audible signals and by lifting her head to expose her throat, and nuzzling his head and neck (6), the female lays between 30 and 60 eggs. These are covered with sand and left to incubate under the heat of the sun for 90 days (3). The female guards the nest and assists during the hatching process, which coincides with the start of the annual rains. Both parents may guard the hatchlings (6) although they can fend for themselves immediately (2). Only a few survive due to predation particularly by raccoons (7).

The adults make dens, dug 3 to 9 metres into the river bank, near the nest site, but move inland during the winter, as they are unable to tolerate water temperatures of much below 18ºC (6). The American crocodile’s diet consists mainly of fish, but birds, small mammals, crabs and turtles are also taken and eaten underwater (3). Crocodiles hunt by waiting motionless in the water until their prey is close enough, then attacking the prey and drowning it. They will even regurgitate small amounts of food to attract fish. During winter, the digestion rate is very slow, so they can go for months without food (2).

Between the 1930s and the 1960s, the American crocodile was hunted for its skin, which was a popular material for bags and belts (3). The species was declared endangered in 1979 and is now legally farmed for its skins. Now, the major threat to wild populations is habitat loss as a result of increasing urban development. Illegal hunting and accidental encounters with fishing nets, cars and boats are still a threat (6).

Surveys and research into population statistics and behavioural ecology have proved extremely useful for recovery efforts in the United States, and are hoped to continue for more southerly populations. The American crocodile is fully protected in the majority of its range, but enforcement of this protection is inadequate, and legal hunters of caiman are known to illegally hunt American crocodiles as well. Management programmes have been set up in eight countries within the range, but they are commonly ignored. As well as reducing illegal hunting, crocodile farms can provide individuals for restocking the wild. For example, Venezuela contains much suitable crocodile habitat, but would benefit from restocking (3).

For more information on the American crocodile and on crocodilian conservation and research, see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact: arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2004)
    http://www.redlist.org
  2. American Crocodile (November, 2004)
    http://www.angelfire.com/mo2/animals1/crocodile/amercroc.html
  3. Crocodilian Species List: Crocodylus acutus (November, 2004)
    http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/natsci/herpetology/brittoncrocs/csp_cacu.htm
  4. CITES (November, 2004)
    http://www.cites.org
  5. Aberdeen University Natural History Centre (November, 2004)
    http://www.abdn.ac.uk/~nhi708/classify/animalia/chordata/reptilia/crocodilia/index.html
  6. Animal Diversity Web (November, 2004)
    http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Crocodylus_acutus.html
  7. Zoo Farm (November, 2004)
    http://zoofarm.elgratissitio.com/acutus.html