status: Vulnerable, IUCN Endangered, ESA
Description and biology
The American crocodile grows to an average length of 12 feet (3.6 meters), but is capable of reaching lengths between 15 and 20 feet (4.5 and 6 meters). It has a slender snout and a hump on its forehead between its eyes. Mature American crocodiles are dark brown to dark greenish-brown in color. Young or juvenile crocodiles are light greenish-brown with dark markings on their bodies and tails. Their undersides, or bellies, are pale. This species of crocodile feeds primarily on fish, but also eats birds, crabs, small mammals, snakes, and turtles.
Once having mated, a female American crocodile will build a nest and lay about 40 eggs around the beginning of May. The nest can be either a hole dug in the sand on a beach
or a mound built out of plant debris (leaves and other matter). These mounds vary in size: they can reach up to 15 feet (4.5 meters) in diameter and 2 feet (0.6 meter) in height. The female may use this same nest year after year. Once they hatch around the beginning of August, young crocodiles face a tough challenge. They are often preyed on by birds, crabs, raccoons, and even adult crocodiles. Very few survive to full adulthood.
Habitat and current distribution
The American crocodile is found in southern Florida, the southern coasts of Mexico, Central America, northern South America, and on the Caribbean islands of Cuba, Jamaica, and Hispaniola (divided between the Dominican Republic on the east and Haiti on the west). Biologists (people who study living organisms) estimate that about 200 to 400 crocodiles exist in the Florida Keys, but they are unsure of the total world population size.
American crocodiles prefer to inhabit coastal waters, including brackish areas (where freshwater and salt water mix) of rivers and lagoons. A number of crocodiles inhabit inland freshwater areas.
History and conservation measures
At one time, the American crocodile was abundant. But its numbers have been greatly reduced by the hunt for its valuable hide. The crocodile is protected in 8 of the 17 countries in which it exists, but this protection is not enforced. Illegal hunting continues in some areas. In recent decades, the development of cities and farms in the crocodile's range have robbed it of much of its habitat, causing a further drop in its numbers.
The hide of the American crocodile is still quite valuable. Crocodile ranches or farms have been established in five countries to breed crocodiles specifically to meet the demand for their hides. Conservationists (people who protect the natural world) urge officials to monitor these farms to see that no wild American crocodiles are captured to build up captive populations.