Last Updated: Jun 15, 2014
The American crocodile can be seen throughout the lowlands of Costa Rica, gliding along rivers or sunning on muddy banks. It has a long, strong tail, a scaly suit of armor and a very powerful set of jaws. The American crocodile’s eyes, ears and nostrils are located on the top of its head, giving the croc a low profile while swimming through the water.
Scientific Name: Crocodylus acutus
Status in the Wild: Threatened
Habitat: Marshes, Rivers, Swamps
Thanks to their short legs, American crocodiles generally crawl along on their bellies, however, they are capable of “galloping” at a surprisingly fast pace. In the water, they often use their bodies and tails to swim rapidly in short bursts when necessary.
An adult male American crocodile averages 13 feet in length and weighs approximately 400 pounds; his female counterpart is about 10 feet long and weighs only 160 pounds. The species can live up to 70 years, and is partial to warm, brackish waters – its habitat consists of river mouths, salt lakes, brackish rivers, estuaries and even the ocean. American crocodiles are most often found between southern Florida and Peru, with a high concentration in Costa Rica.
Their diet consists mostly of insects (when young), small mammals, birds, fish, crabs, snails, frogs and occasionally carrion. American crocodiles are much less aggressive than the Nile crocodile, which has earned attention as a people-eater. However, when confronted, even American crocodiles will become aggressive.
American crocodiles can be distinguished from American alligators in three simple ways. First, American alligators can survive in cool waters -- as cold as 45 F, while American crocodiles would quickly drown as their systems shut down from the cold. In addition, American crocodiles have longer, narrower snouts, and their bottom teeth can always be seen, even when their mouths are closed.
A small American crocodile population is found in southern Florida, though most live in southern Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and South America as far south as Peru and Venezuela. One of the largest known populations is found in the Dominican Republic’s Lago Enriquillo, a land-locked hypersaline lake.
Costa Rica has a large American crocodile population, and most crocs live in the country’s national parks and protected areas. Though the animals are found in Palo Verde National Park, Corcovado National Park, Carara National Park and Tortuguero, the most popular lookout spot is the bridge over the Tarcoles River, just a few minutes from Jaco.
American crocodiles are shy and mostly solitary, though it is not uncommon to see several sunbathing on rocks, just a few feet from each other.
Populations will adapt their breeding strategy to suit their current environment: if well-drained nest sites cannot be found, the animals will build nesting mounds to lay their eggs. Though American crocodiles nest during the dry season, flooding still occurs, creating a high mortality rate.
Female American crocodiles reach sexual maturity at eight feet long, and males court their mates for up to two months before nesting. The average female will lay between 20 and 60 eggs per season, which gestate for 90 days, corresponding to the beginning on the rainy season. Upon hatching, baby American crocodiles measure only 10 inches in length.
American crocodile parents range from minimally protective to moderately protective; some will provide almost no assistance at all to their newborn babies, while others will fend off predators, guard the nest and even lead the young animals to food. Baby American crocodiles venture away from the nest within a few days of hatching and are much less vocal during their first few weeks of life. Some experts suggest that this is a form of rapid evolution and adaptation – in order to protect themselves from heavy hunting, both adults and babies disperse as soon as possible after birth.
Status in the Wild
After more than 30 years on the endangered species list, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified the American crocodile in 2007 as a threatened species. It remains endangered in all other countries.
Though the prehistoric beast looks and acts tough, it has fallen prey to poaching and illegal hunting throughout its habitat. Its hide was once greatly prized by hunters, but today, egg poaching and human encroachment on its habitats are the American crocodile’s biggest threats. There are reportedly fewer than 4,000 animals remaining worldwide.
Knowledge has spread about the American crocodile’s situation, and preservation efforts have grown in the last several years. Though laws have now been enacted in almost every country, enforcement is still somewhat disorganized and lacking.
Crocodile Fun Facts
- Crocodiles used to be 45-feet long millions of years ago; today the longest crocodile on record is 19-feet
- Crocodiles live almost 90 years, and continue to grow until they die
- Crocodiles have 66-68 total teeth between both jaws that when clamped together create 4,000 pounds of pressure
- Crocodiles can live one year without eating
- Crocodiles lay about 50 eggs, of which only one will hatch