There are 24 species of crocodilian that exist in the world today. Of that, 8 species are of the family Alligatoridae, but only 2 of these are distinct species of the alligator genus. Crocodiles and Caimans have wider global distribution, but where alligators do live, they are masters of their domain.
They are both apex predators and a keystone species, vital to maintaining balance in their ecosystem.
As alligators, crocodiles and caimans are all very similar, it can be easy to mistake them for one another unless you are familiar with the tell tale physical features that separate each species. Another tell tale sign is usually location, as the species rarely co-inhabit. So where do alligators live exactly?
In this blog we will look at where alligators live across the globe, as well as the habitat that they choose.
Where do Alligators live in the world?
Alligators are known to live in regions of China, as well as the United States. Their range is pretty well defined within these two distant areas of the globe. How did the only two species of alligator end up so far apart?
Well the Chinese alligator and American alligator where the same species until around 33 million years ago. The split most likely evolved from a population that crossed the Bering land bridge at that time.
Of the 5 species of alligator that are extinct, all of them existed in North America, particularly around Nebraska and South Dakota. So it is clear that the Chinese alligator emigrated out of America rather than the other way around.
Alligators don’t really like to travel much, so their range stays fairly regular over time. Climate change and environmental pressures may cause them to expand or relocate their ranges eventually, depending on the impact to their habitat.
Where Do Alligators live in China?
The Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis) – is a distinct species of alligator, native to China but restricted today to only a few areas. This species is listed as critically endangered, and is one of the most vulnerable crocodilians in the world.
It’s range and population were once abundant, spanning as far as Japan but today, only six regions in the Anhui province along the lower Yangtze River basin, as well as the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang are home to the Chinese alligator. It’s range has been recorded to be as low as a measly 1.9 square miles. In 1982 the Anhui National Nature Reserve for the Chinese Alligator was established, to span the entire range of the alligator’s habitat.
The population of Chinese alligator dropped as low as 130 in the wild in 2001, and has risen to about 300 as of 2017. There are far more living in captivity, in zoos and captive breeding programmes. In 2016, some 20,000 Chinese alligators were living in captivity, some of which have been returned to China to try and revive the wild population.
Threats To The Chinese Alligator
The population of Chinese Alligator started to decline around 5000 BC, when human populations expanded and rice farming became established on much of the alligators habitat. They were pushed out by the expansion of agriculture in the Yangtze area which required the same kind of marshy, freshwater habitat that the alligators enjoy.
In the modern 20th-21st Century era, the biggest threats to the Chinese alligator are still mostly human, but natural disasters have also played their part. Habitat loss for rice farming continued to add pressure, as did the creation of dams which flooded their habitats, pushing them into less accommodating environments. Killing by humans for food or out of fear also added pressure to the species.
As of today the numbers are no longer decreasing, and in some groups have started to slowly recover.
Where Do Alligators live in The United States?
The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is found in the south-eastern United States.
They are most commonly found in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Arkansas. In the southern states around the Gulf of Mexico.
There have been sightings of alligators outside of their usual habitat in Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, and as far north as New York.
There are around 5 million alligators living wild in the United States, with Florida and Louisiana having the largest populations. In Florida alone there are an estimate of more than one million alligators, and 2 million in Louisiana. Numbers were not always as fruitful however.
Threats To The American Alligator
In the 19th century the American alligator was hunted widely and their habitats were encroached again with the expansion of human populations and agriculture. At one point it was unknown whether the species would recover from this unsustainable decimation. It was listed as endangered and protected from hunting.
Thankfully, as you can see, populations have recovered and they are now listed as least concern.
Do Alligators live in Mexico?
Mexico is home to the Morelet’s crocodile (also known as the Mexican crocodile), and also the American crocodile. However, it is not yet clear if it is home to the American alligator. It is thought that this may change in the future, as the alligator’s habitat range expands or changes over time. Currently, new habitats are being formed in Tennessee, and it is thought the alligator may move down across the border between Texas and Mexico in the future.
There are some reports of a small population found in Tamaulipas, a province in Mexico that borders with Texas, but the legitimacy of this claim yet to be backed up.
It is rare for alligators to move further than around 12 miles from their home, so expanding their range generally takes a long time.
American vs Chinese Alligator – How To Tell The Difference
- The Snout – Chinese alligator snout is tapered and turns up slightly at the end. The American one doesn’t.
- Body – The Chinese alligator has bony plates around its eyes and on its belly that the American alligator doesn’t have.
- Length – American alligators are much larger. An adult will average 8 feet long for female and 11 feet for mate. Whereas the Chinese alligator will average 4.5 feet for female and 5 feet for male.
- Weight – The American alligator can weight as much as 1000lbs, ten times that of the average Chinese one at 100 lbs.
What Habitat Do Alligators Live In?
Both the American and Chinese alligators live as freshwater inhabitants. They love warm, humid conditions and live in marshes, swamps, rivers, and lakes. They spend the majority of their time in freshwater, with a minority of it spent in brackish water (slightly salty) and a still smaller portion spent in saline water.
Alligators lack salt glands that pump harmful levels of sodium and other seawater ions out of their bodies, they can’t handle salty water for too long.
They’ll only visit bodies of saltwater for several hours at a time.
Both species like to eat fish, snakes, birds, and small mammals.
Is the South American Yacare Caiman an Alligator?
The Yacare Caiman is a relation to the alligator, but is a member of a different subfamily. This can be confusing, because the name ‘Yacaré‘ (Spanish) or ‘Jacaré‘ (Portuguese) means ‘Alligator’ in the now extinct Old Tupi language of Brazil. So the name ‘Yacare Caiman’ translates to ‘Alligator Caiman’.
These relatives can be found around South America, particularly in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. Particularly through the wet season in the flooded Chaco region which spreads across an area in all four of these countries.
Yacare Caimans and alligators are both crocodilians and members of the Alligatoridae family, but members of different subfamilies. Alligators are from the Alligatorinae subfamily, and Yacare caimans are from the Caimaninae subfamily.
Can Crocodiles and Alligators live in the same place?
Crocodiles and Alligators can live in the same place, but usually do not. Crocodiles like both saltwater and freshwater and are often found round coastal areas. Whereas alligators are freshwater dwellers, only entering saltwater for short spells.
While alligators are native to China, the Southern States of America (particularly along the Gulf Coast), and possibly small parts of Mexico. Crocodiles are native to much of Asia, Australia, Africa, and the coastal regions of Central and South America (especially the Pacific coast).
The northern extreme of the American crocodiles range however, reaches into Florida, and this is where you may see both species live in the same place. The everglades area of Florida is the only place in the world where both alligators and crocodiles live together.
While these crocodilians may live together, they can’t interbreed so there won’t be any scary hybrids entering the ecosystem any time soon!