The Alligator: Everything You Need To Know

Feared and revered for their mystique, toothy grins, and ridged hides, the alligator really is the closest thing to a dinosaur we have left.

The Alligator: Everything You Need To Know

But just how many species of alligator are there in the world, and what differences separate them? 


Whilst the true origins of the name “alligator” are unknown, it is thought that it is probably an anglicized form of the phrase “el lagarto”, which translates to “the lizard” in Spanish. 

Common Types Of Alligator

Whilst many species of alligators once roamed the Earth, there are only two extant species which still exist: the American alligator, and the Chinese alligator. 

American Alligator

Known colloquially as a “gator”, or the common alligator, the American alligator is a large crocodilian reptile found in the southeastern United States, namely the everglades of Florida. 

The largest of the two living alligator species, the American alligator is an apex predator, consuming fish, mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, making them a dangerous, but necessary part of their wetland ecosystems.  

Despite being the largest of the two species, their weight depends on various factors, including their age, their length, their health, the season, and the amount of access to viable food sources they have. 

Most average males are between 3 and 4 meters long (9 feet 10 inches – 13 feet 1 inch), and weigh anywhere between 440 to 770 pounds. 

The maximum length for an adult male alligator is thought to be around 15 feet 1 inch, and despite persistent rumors that they can continuously grow throughout their lives, sufficient evidence suggests that like most life on Earth, their growth is limited.

Chinese Alligator

Also known as the Yangtze Alligator or the “muddy dragon”, the Chinese Alligator is the smaller of the two species, with average lengths reaching a maximum of 5 to 7 feet in total. 

Its diet is more limited than its American counterpart, based mainly on fish and invertebrates found in their freshwater home.

The Alligator: Everything You Need To Know

However, they are opportunistic feeders, and will attack larger, less common prey if the situation requires it. 

Several differences are present between the two species, most notably the completely armored body of the Chinese alligator, and the non-webbed toes of the Chinese as compared to the extensively webbed feet of the American alligator.

Chinese alligators are dormant in winter, living in burrows, and recharging in the sunlight before normal activity can be resumed in the warmer months.

Once summer comes, the Chinese alligator becomes nocturnal, resting during the day, and hunting for its prey come nightfall. 

Common Traits Of Alligators

Despite their differences, there are several common traits they both share. 


Found only in the United States, Mexico, and China, the alligator is found in freshwater environments, namely the swamps and wetlands of the Floridian everglades, the bayous of Louisiana, and the wetlands of Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama, and the Yangtze river in China.

Despite their fearsome reputations, they play important roles in their freshwater homes. 

Their underwater burrows not only increase the diversity of the plant and bacterial life in their habitat, but the burrows themselves also create vital homes for smaller organisms and creatures, especially during droughts and other tough environmental occurrences.  

There are far fewer Chinese alligators in the wild than their American counterparts, with no more than a few dozen thought to still be present in the Yangtze river.

There are more Chinese alligators in zoos around the world than there are in the wild, although efforts are being taken to increase the numbers through assisted breeding. 


Solitary and territorial animals, large alligators of both genders defend prime locations in their habitats against competing alligators and other creatures.

Smaller alligators typically live together, living in groups for the protection of one another and their young. 

Whilst larger alligators are more aggressive and competitive with outsiders of similar sizes, smaller alligators are generally more accepting and agreeable to what would otherwise be viewed as competition. 

Whilst they spend much of their time in the water, they are also accomplished land creatures, and are able to reach high speeds on foot, only adding to their formidability.

The Alligator: Everything You Need To Know

Their two speeds are known as “sprawls” and “high walks”,  with the sprawl being a transitory movement with the belly on the ground, and the high walk being when all four legs(see also: Animals That Walk On Two Legs) are lifting the body off the ground for faster movement. 


Mating happens in late spring, where males use a sound called “bellowing” to attract prospective females. 

Once mating has occurred, females lay eggs in a nest, where they are kept warm by vegetation, and protected by both sexes.

The gender of the offspring, like most reptiles, is determined by the temperature of the environment they are incubated in, and as such is subject to change. 

Common Attributes Of Alligators

Physically, there are some similarities and differences between the two species. 


All species of alligator have armor made from scutes of bone. This makes them incredibly tough, and capable of dealing and taking a lot of damage. 

Whilst American alligators might be larger, their belly is exposed with only thin skin, whilst the smaller Chinese alligator has armor around its entire body. 

Their tails are also armored, and are incredibly muscular to help them swim quickly through the water. 


Like some species of birds, alligators have been seen to exhibit unidirectional movement of air to the lungs.

Whilst mammals breathe in and out in a bidirectional system, alligators use a circuit, where the oxygen enters the mouth and snout, and exits through passages within the lungs. 

Final Thoughts

And there we have it, everything you need to know about American and Chinese alligators. 

It’s safe to say that crocodilians are not only some of the most fascinating reptiles, but some of the most fascinating creatures on the planet. 

That being said, maybe don’t check them out for yourself!

Olivia Kepner