Answer Man

The differences between alligators and crocodiles

Q: Following up on your recent trivia question, what is the difference between crocodiles and alligators? They’ve always seemed pretty much alike to me.

C.K., of Belleville

A: Alike? Au contraire, mademoiselle, they differ more than you know. Let me count the ways:

One, perhaps the best way to tell is the shape of their snouts. The alligator’s is wide and u-shaped, helping it to deliver a more powerful bite for breaking open things like turtle shells. A crocodile’s is more pointed and V-shaped because it feasts on tenderer vittles such as fish, reptiles and mammals.

Two, if you look closer and see teeth all the time, it’s likely a crocodile. Even when their mouths are closed, at least some of the croc’s bottom teeth can be seen while a gator’s usually can’t.

Three, you probably don’t want to get close enough with a tape measure, but an adult crocodile can grow up to 19 feet long versus 14 for an alligator.

Four, although alligators heavily outnumber crocodiles in the United States (3 million to 2,000 by some estimates), crocs are found throughout the world while gators are concentrated in China and the southern U.S.

Five, crocodiles have special glands in their tongues, allowing them to expel salt from their bodies. As a result, they can survive long periods at sea while alligators, whose glands do not work nearly as well, prefer fresh water.

Six, as a rule, crocodiles are usually lighter in color (tan, olive) than alligators, which may have a blackish gray hue.

And, finally, seven and eight: While alligators move faster, they generally shy away from humans unless provoked or become accustomed to them. Crocodiles, on the other hand, have nasty tempers, especially those found in Australia and around the Nile. Fortunately, according to experts, people rarely wind up as lunch to either in the United States.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer