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American Crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus)

Crocodiles, the largest of living reptiles, found throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. There are 12 species of crocodiles. The American crocodile, the only species found in the United States, lives in southern Florida, the Caribbean, southern Mexico and along the Central American coast south to Venezuela. Their habitat of choice is the fresh or brackish water of river estuaries, coastal lagoons and the ponds, coves and creeks in mangrove swamps. Decidedly less aggressive than the infamous Nile and Australian crocodiles, American crocodiles are shy, reclusive and rarely seen by people but occasionally being encountered inland in freshwater areas of the SE Florida coast as a result of the extensive canal system. There are more than 1,000 American crocodiles, not including hatchlings, in Florida. Florida is the only place where you can find both crocodiles and alligators.

A prehistoric-looking creature, it is distinguishable from its cousin, the American alligator, by its longer, thinner snout, its lighter gray-green or olive-green color, dark crossbands on the back and tail, also the fourth tooth on the bottom jaw on both sides of the head that are visible when its mouth is closed. They are well-armored with tough, scaly skin protected by large bony plates. Crocodiles also have heavy tails, short legs, and webbed hind feet. The crocodile has protruding eyes and nostrils, raised slightly above the flattened head, allowing the animal to see and breathe while the rest of its body is submerged. The ears have flaps that close when the head is submerged. A fold at the back of the mouth closes off the air passage from the food passage, enabling the animal to breathe even when its mouth is open underwater. The jaws have powerful muscles and sharp, strong teeth that are frequently shed, replaced by new ones that grow in their place. Both sexes have a pair of scent glands under the chin that secretes musk, a strong-smelling substance that attracts a mate.

American crocodiles are carnivorous with thier diet consisting mainly of small mammals, birds, fish, crabs, insects, snails, frogs, carrion, turtles and the occasional bird or small mammal. They will eat nearly anything that is small enough for them to ingest. It has been reported that this species prefers to hunt during the first hours following nightfall, especially on moonless nights. It is, however, safe to assume that this crocodile will take a meal any time it can get one. They have been known to attack people, but are far more likely to flee at the sight of humans. The feeding method for small prey, such as fish, is simply to ingest the food item whole. But the feeding method of crocodiles for large prey is unique. Crocodiles do not chew their food; if their prey is too large to be swallowed whole, they grasp it with their teeth and twist their bodies in order to tear chunks of flesh from it. American crocodiles also ingest small stones to aid in grinding up their food. Adults approach a swimming animal from under water and drag it down until it drowns. Once a crocodile succeeds in capturing a land mammal from the shore, it will proceed to drag it into the water and drown it. When the animal is dead the crocodile will hold on to one body part and roll its body until the affected part is completely twisted off, thereby creating a bite-size chunk that is easily ingested. If the prey is too large to be consumed in one sitting, it is not uncommon for the crocodile to take it to a hiding place, usually underneath an overhanging bank or submerged log, and consume it at a later time.

American crocodiles breed in late fall or early winter, engaging in drawn-out mating ceremonies in which males emit very low frequency bellows to attract females. In February or March, gravid females will begin to create nests of sand, mud, and dead vegetation along the water's edge. Nest location is crucial, and with the correct amount of vegetation, the eggs will develop within a small temperature range. Because sex determination is temperature-dependent in crocodilians, slight aberrations in temperature may result in all-male or all-female clutches, which would possibly harm the health of the population. About one month later, when it is time to lay, the female will dig a wide hole diagonally into the side of the nest and lay 30 to 70 eggs in it, depending on her size. After laying, the female may cover the eggs with debris or leave them uncovered. During the 75 to 80 day incubation period, the parents will guard the nest, often inhabiting a hole in the bank nearby. Females especially have been known to guard their nests with ferocity. The hatchlings, which are 9.4 to 11 inches in length, have been reported to actively hunt prey within a few days of hatching. It is not uncommon for the mother to care for her young even weeks after they have hatched, remaining attentive to their calls and continuing to provide transportation. About five weeks after hatching, the young crocodiles disband in search of their own independent lives. Most of them, of course, will not survive, being preyed upon by various raptorial birds and larger fishes. Those that do survive the early stages of life will grow rapidly, feeding on insects, fish and frogs.

American Crocodile Fun Facts

  • Crocodiles ambush their prey either in the water or on land.
  • Crocodiles use their teeth and jaws to crush prey. They often tear prey apart in chunks or swallow it whole.
  • They exert enormous pressure when grasping prey between their jaws but have very little strength to open them up.
  • A crocodiles mouth can be kept shut with a simple rubber band.
  • Crocodiles swallow stones that help grind food inside their stomach. The stones may also be a way to help them balance.
  • The egg-laying creatures have very keen hearing. They can even hear their babies calling from inside the eggshell.
  • Crocodiles can swim up to 20 mph with the aid of their strong tails.
  • They are much more awkward on land but can run up to 11 mph for a short distance.
  • Crocodiles have very slow metabolisms and can survive for months without food.
  • Crocodiles are often illegally hunted for their skin. A crocodile skin bag can cost more than $10,000.
  • Poaching is threatening the numbers of many crocodile species.
  • Like other reptiles, crocodiles are cold-blooded.
  • Crocodiles can survive for a long time without food.
  • Crocodiles release heat through their mouths rather than through sweat glands.

Did You Know?

  • Crocodile skin is considered one of the finest, treasured for it durability and softness. It's a sign of status in tribal societies.
  • "Crying crocodile tears" – displaying fake sadness – comes from the myth that the reptiles weep when eating humans.
  • From some tribes in New Guinea, the crocodile is a totem god and these people make themselves crocodile-like by body scarring, which is an extremely painful procedure.

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